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What is Political Science?


When the non-profit organization, American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), conducted a survey of more than 1,000 universities, it found that fewer than 20 percent of them required either political science or history!  ACTA President Anne Neal asked, “How can one think critically about anything if one does not have a foundation of skills and knowledge?  It’s like suggesting our future leaders only need to go to Wikipedia to determine the direction of our country.”

Aristotle regarded the study of politics as the “supreme science.”  Professor Herbert Adams is credited with coining the phrase “political science” while teaching history at Johns Hopkins University.  The phrase is believed to have been derived from the Greek term “polis” for city-states and “scire” for knowledge.  Political science is a social science that deals with the theory and practice of politics.  It is oriented around academia, theory, and research.  It has clear roots in the fields of philosophy, economics, and history.  It began to be taught in American universities under various names as early as the 1860s.

The importance of political science is the knowledge of the application of political powers in various types of governments.  The study of political science motivates citizens to participate in political activities of the state.  It gives citizens the insight regarding the consequences of individual actions in society.  The principles of liberty, equality, and accountability are made clear by the study of American government. To understand the immense power of government, it is essential to study political science.        

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For example, in American Public University’s graduate course on the U.S. Presidency (POLS 630), students actively engage in topics to include the modern presidency, the imperial presidency, and scandalous presidents.  In the American Government course (POLS 210), undergraduate students discuss the merits of omnibus bills to overcome congressional partisanship, analyze key presidential speeches that made a difference in the country, and review key Supreme Court cases with regard to activist judges and justices.

The bottom line is that political science classes enrich one’s mind and widens one’s intellectual horizon as an American citizen.  In order to know what is happening in the country requires at least an elementary knowledge of its political system.  Political science also teaches good citizenship, cooperation, and toleration.  The success of our democracy depends on the political consciousness of the American people.

By Stephen Schwalbe, PhD
Program Director, Political Science at American Public University