By Jacob Baynham
In 2001, Michael J. Graham, S.J., had just taken over as president of Xavier and was giving a speech to faculty about his vision for the University. By the time philosophy professor Paul Colella shuffled into the auditorium—habitually late and only half listening—Graham was mentioning something about creating a new honors program, to be called Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
“I think I’ll have to talk to Paul Colella about this,” he said.
“I must’ve caught his eye,” Colella says. So he did what any professor in his position would do: He hurried back to his office and started researching. What he found was such high-minded programs that merge philosophy and politics are generally a British tradition, although American versions exist at exclusive schools such as Yale and Stanford. The British model typically requires students to quickly narrow their focus, but if a similar program were to exist at Xavier, he thought, it should reflect a broad Jesuit education, with enough flexibility to allow students to customize it to suit their interests.
Colella and his colleagues decided the program should be called Philosophy, Politics and the Public, or PPP. The word “public” was important, Colella says. “It seemed open enough to accommodate all of the things we wanted to see happen.”
After hammering out a curriculum in two years, the first class of 14 PPP majors was selected in 2003. Since then, more than 70 students have gone through the program.
The four-year program emphasizes philosophy and history to complement a hands-on approach to political science. A final 30-page senior thesis allows students to apply all their learning to a topic of their choosing.
“The program allows students to craft areas of interest without having to shoehorn them into a discipline,” Colella says. The end goal, he says, is to produce “public intellectuals to work for the public good.”
Freshmen begin with a course in philosophy and history, taught by two professors to show the interrelation of the subjects. Within the first few days of their sophomore year, they are thrown into the deep end of the political swimming pool. Each student is instructed to volunteer for a politician’s election campaign—whether it’s for a race for city council or president of the United States.
“By the time they’re done, they under stand what it takes to get elected into a public office in the United States,” says Gene Beaupré, a former director for two mayoral offices in Cincinnati and political science instructor. “You could drop a student into any campaign headquarters in the country and they’d know what’s going on.”
After the elections, they switch to working with public policy. Students research an issue, take a position on it and then travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with policy-makers for a frontline lesson in political advocacy. “It teaches them how to interact with people from the highest levels of the government to little interest groups,” Beaupré says. “At the end of their sophomore year, they see someplace they’d like to go with their careers.”
In their junior year, students take a class called “Enlightenment and Revolution,” which explores the centuries-old philosophy and history that forms the backdrop to the political theater in which they have just participated. The capstone to this course is an intensive two-week seminar in Paris.
The PPP program is one of the main reasons Alyssa Konermann came to Xavier. A native of nearby West Chester, Ohio, Konermann thought she would leave the state for college and settle elsewhere. But the PPP program intrigued her, and when she graduates in May she will stay in Cincinnati. “I find myself very invested in the city,” she says, “and I don’t plan on moving.”
Konermann, who minors in studio art, is writing her senior thesis about New York City artist Tim Rollins who incorporates philosopher John Dewey’s views on art as a socially transformative experience to help teach struggling students in the Bronx. She hopes to do similar work in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, a community she says understands the idea of “the public” better than most suburbs.
“This isn’t some foreign thing that they can’t be a part of,” she says.
Colella and Beaupré are both impressed by where their students land. PPP graduates have become political satirists, appointed federal employees and development workers in South Africa, India and Mali. “I think about what a slug I was in college,” Beaupré says. “When I was their age, I went to Canada and thought it was a big deal.”