It is election night. A few dozen Xavier University students gather at local NPR radio station WVXU as the results start to pour in. They are not just casual observers. These students have actually worked on local, state and national campaigns, analyzed issues, formulated political strategies and investigated voting patterns. And that was just part of their assignments as students in Xavier’s Philosophy, Politics & the Public (PPP) Honors Program.
Established in 2003, PPP brings together many of Xavier’s traditional curricular strengths in an innovative and rigorous undergraduate honors program of study focusing on the unifying concept of “the public.”
Oxford University’s program in Philosophy, Politics & Economics served as the original model for Xavier’s program. The Oxford template has been duplicated at such American universities as Stanford and Yale.
“What makes Xavier’s program unique and the only one like it in the country is the development of ‘the public’ as a concept and as an experience,” says E. Paul Colella, PPP program director. “Rather than simply distributing requirements over several disciplines, let’s say, over philosophy, political science and economics, we viewed PPP as a chance to take advantage of Xavier’s core curriculum and do something more integrative and multi-disciplinary.”
Not only is the coursework multi-disciplinary, it also centers on a particular disciplinary concentration. One PPP track places the primary emphasis upon “the public as experience”; specifically, it unites an interdisciplinary investigation of the history and current state of civic culture in the United States with practical exercises in electoral and legislative politics.
The second track option emphasizes “the public sphere as a concept”; that is, as a cultural phenomenon and places primary emphasis on philosophical, cultural, and literary approaches to public experience.
When it comes to selecting a track, students are encouraged to follow their own interests and passions in the theoretical engagement of the public in its many embodiments and meanings.
Such passions led senior Joe Moorman and several of his classmates all the way to Washington, DC. In February 2005 as part of their Legislative Politics class, the group embarked on an investigation of the civil rights lawsuit and settlement between black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“I thought there was an opportunity there to make some real changes, to really have an effect on the political environment surrounding the issue,” says Moorman.
The class attended a regional congressional hearing on the lawsuit and also traveled to the nation’s capital to meet one-on-one with Congressional staffers, black farming organizational leaders, and others.
Moorman and fellow students, Mary Rose Miller and Courtney Hansman, became so engrossed in the topic that they continued working on the issue through a summer internship. They continued talks with Congressional leaders and made several trips to DC, North Carolina and Alabama to conduct interviews. The result was a documentary which tells the story of the discrimination against the black farmers, the complications of the lawsuit and the future of black farming.
“The students progressed from a study of the public policy process to active participation in the various forms of the public debate,” says Eugene Beaupre, Xavier’s director of government relations.
Each fall, as part of the Mass Media and Politics course PPP students actively campaign for candidates or ballot issues. They do everything from making phone calls to handing out literature to working on field reports. Based on their experiences, they prepare and present a campaign strategy and produce a campaign commercial.
Several PPP students have also served as political interns at the local, state and national level. Senior Erin McDermott spent this past summer interning in the office of House Majority Leader John Boehner. Boehner is a 1977 Xavier graduate.
Junior Brian Cantwell was also busy this summer working at two different Congressional offices. He spent the first part of the summer at Ohio Senator Mike DeWine’s (R) office and the second half at the office of Ohio U.S. Representative Steve Chabot (R).
“I had to research very minute details of the Social Security Act for a Medicare program that was the subject of a pending Senate bill,” says Cantwell. “My education in the Philosophy, Politics and the Public program taught me how to think about the complexities of an issue and how they relate to one another. The nature of the interdisciplinary program allowed me to realize one cannot know everything.”
Next spring junior Katherine Holley will participate in the Hansard Scholars Programme in London. This program gives undergraduates an invaluable opportunity to get at the heart of the British political system. Her internship will come just as Prime Minister Tony Blair will be preparing for his succession.
“As a student of political science, it is very important to me to thoroughly study different types of government,” says Holley. “By participating in the inner workings of the British political system, I can carefully compare and evaluate both Britain and the U.S.’s strengths and weaknesses in an effort to try to understand and possibly improve the political process.” While in London, Holley will also take courses at the London School of Economics.
“The combination of scholarly and practical investigations of democracy is designed to create citizens who are reflective and effective, equipped with vision and capable of exercising power responsibly,” says History Professor John Fairfield.
PPP students are also encouraged to study in Europe during a summer. They can select from programs in Rome, London, Paris or Ireland. Or they may take part in one of Xavier’s Academic Service Learning Semesters where students have an opportunity to travel to Ghana, India, or Nicaragua.
PPP graduates will go on to careers in law, diplomacy, public life, business or the academy. Regardless of vocation, they will be distinctive for the depth and breadth of their comprehension of the complex constellation of issues that constitute the public, and the breadth of knowledge that they can bring to bear on its problems. What is more, they will engage these issues as citizen leaders in a manner that embodies the Jesuit ideal of being men and women for others.
For more information, please log on to http://www.xu.edu/honors/ppp_overview.cfm .