Studying politics at a time of global turmoil, in the absence of any opportunity for debate

When people hear that I am studying democracy at the masters level (I am studying Democracy and Comparative Politics at UCL) I often hear things like, “Wow, what an exciting time to be studying Democracy!”, or “You are so lucky, there is so much to talk about!”.  I wish!

There is certainly no absence of big issues.  China is about to grant an unprecedented third term to President Xi Jinping—this is likely to have far reaching consequences for global politics.  What about Taiwan?  What about north Korea?  With about 2/3 of my classmates coming from China, you might think there a perfect opportunity for mutual learning.  Courtesy of Vladimir Putin war has come again to Europe—is he a dictator bent on recreating the Soviet Union or a responsible leader seeking to protect a beleaguered nation in the face of aggressive expansion by NATO?  Energy prices are soaring, bringing a cost of living crisis to many in the West—how will or should this be addressed?  How should the burden be shared? In the United States, ex-President Trump is being investigated for allegedly fomenting insurrection in an attempt to overturn an election result he saw as unfavourable. Is Democracy seriously under threat in America?  Can they not run an election which does not descend into chaos?  Here in Britain, we are about to appoint a new Prime Minister for the third time this year.  I could say that we are about to appoint our third Prime Minister, however, there is a reasonable likelihood that a thoroughly discredited politician (Boris Johnson), who abused his office and lied to the country, may be reappointed by the very same party that threw him out in June of this year (so we may have one repeating).  What does this mean for Democracy in the UK, and can this ludicrous system by which we change our leaders be changed?  I could go on and on.

Nevertheless, in the classes I am taking, there is almost no opportunity to speak with classmates or professors about these events, or the political concepts and theories with which events are concerned. Classes are about 50 minutes, normally held once a week, and more often than not even the core material is not covered.  We are encouraged to read material we rarely discuss and study concepts online we may not even touch on in class.

When I studied Political Science as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester in New York, USA, we had two 15-week terms each year and three hours per week of class time (45 hours of contact time per class/module). The opportunity to engage classmates and the professor on critical issues was considerable. If I felt there were still burning questions, I could wander along and visit a professor in their office (they were almost always there and their door was open—literally and metaphorically) and chat with them, at some leisure—they were delighted by the interest of students and saw them as junior partners in a process of academic enquiry.  Some would regularly invite students to their homes (in groups) to continue the discussion.

At UCL there are three 10-week terms in the same academic year (implying 8.3 hours per class/module), and curiously there are no classes in the third term.  In this term students are meant to be working on their dissertation.  The gap in contact time is immense and one’s ability to learn or explore issues in any level of depth is severely impaired.  In this case, if I am curious about an issue and wish to follow up I must book a meeting online, and I am only permitted a single 10 or 15 minute slot. This barely allows time for a greeting, much less a developed and nuanced conversation about issues of interest.

Furthermore, as a Masters student one might expect more interaction with colleagues, not less.  I am enjoying my learning, but essentially am doing it on my own. 

I certainly don’t blame the professors. They seem as frustrated as anybody by the administrative demands on their time and the inability to continue a promising discussion.  It is clear that they also find these short follow up meetings absurd and seem to despair, as I do, regarding the absence of debate, discussion, and inquiry which must be the point of learning.  The economic reality of underfunded universities and overburdened and pressurised teaching staff guarantees this outcome—but I find it extremely depressing.     

I have been hoping that societies existed where like-minded students could meet and explore issues of interest. However despite my searching, I have thus far come up empty handed.  With one year to go, I have decided to take matters into my own hands and have contacted a nearby pub which will enable us to meet there on a Monday or Tuesday night (when the pub often has a free room upstairs) and have a discussion about issues of interest. I will invite professors and my colleagues on my programme and other relevant programmes, and I am very curious to see how this goes.  I will try to do this twice this term and see how it goes.  The first one will be on November 15th—and if you as a reader are interested in attending please contact me via LinkedIn or by commenting on this post.

I do wonder if part of the issue is the problem lies in how my own personal goals for the programme differ from those of other students.  My objective is very much intrinsic. By that I mean that for me the reward I will receive from this Master’s degree, comes from the learning itself, and from the depth with which I can explore issues of interest.  This is not that surprising, as I am 65 years old, and I am less likely to set off on the beginning of an exciting career.  On the other hand, I get the impression that for many, the value is instrumental—for what the degree will do for them.  I spoke to a Chinese student this week who was attending UCL (a different Political Science programme from mine) and when I asked him why he came to UCL he said, “This is one of the top ten universities in the world and when I get a degree I have a better chance of getting a great job.”  Maybe his interest in learning for its own sake is rather less than mine.

Let’s see if anyone turns up in the pub on 15/11………

Rodney Schwartz

London, UK—22 October 2022 

I started my career in mainstream finance and then impact investing before returning to his lifelong passion of politics in 2021.  This blog reflects that return and is my way of sharing the impressions of someone journeying from finance back into education to study politics after four decades at work.  For those interested in why I started this blog click here, and to read my declaration of known biases, click here.  I welcome any comments.