How Not to Study the State
My most memorable high school experience occurred on the first day of my senior year. I was sitting in an Advanced Placement US Government class when the teacher posed a simple question to the students. It was a question intended to set the course in motion, and get us fledgling statecraft scholars thinking.
The question was, “what is government?”
My hand was in the air before he completed the sentence. (I had prepared an answer in anticipation of the course.) Holding on to my holster full of knowledge garnered from my proudly self-described “intellectually avant-garde” internet musings, I said, “Governments (i.e., states in this case) are those organizations that have monopolized the use of force over any given geographical region.”
I then felt embarrassment as my passionate answer was struck down by laughter from the class. My teacher looked down at the floor, unsure how to respond. He had obviously never heard such an answer before, and recovered by reverting back to his conventional train of thought and answering the question as he had been conditioned to: “Governments” he said, “are simply those institutions that make policy.”
I do not remember what he said next. Though I do remember what I was thinking, or rather, what I was feeling.
And I was feeling frustrated and unsatisfied.
My teacher was wrong; the class was wrong. Indeed, I felt my answer was more than appropriate; or, at least more appropriate than the “correct” response — according to the teacher — which was simply: “Government makes policy.” This didn’t answer the underlying question about the nature of government, but specified a function of government. In fact, my teacher was failing to follow the traditional guidelines of credible civics educators around the world. My definition was not extrapolated from some strange corner of the internet, but from famous sociologist Max Weber’s book, Politics as a Vocation. In the book, Weber discussed the concept that states are no different than regular organizations — people coming together with a common goal. But what sets states apart is their assertion of a “monopoly on violence.”
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It is unclear whether that classroom incident was a failure on the part of the teacher or the course itself. However, upon examining the course syllabus (as well as the syllabus for the sister class, “AP Comparative Politics”) on the college board website, it becomes evident that there is no mention of the “definition of government” (only definitions of more basic topics such as the “study of government” and “democracy” and “federalism”), and the only mention of Max Weber is his views on bureaucracy.
In reality, the AP program was designed to give high school students a chance to earn college credits, and therefore, this was designed as a college course by college educators! Therefore, it is likely that this problem extends to entry level college civics courses. Additionally, most high school students will never take an AP government course, or any political science course for that matter. These factors contribute to a population that is ignorant about the nature of states, and their relationship to each person who is subject to the state’s monopoly power.
Thus, discussions concerning the fundamentals of governments are largely nonexistent. When the topic indeed arises among students who take a critical view, such views are stigmatized — labeled as “deviant thinking.” If we really want to allow our students to think critically about those who have authority over them, the intellectually lazy approach that is currently taken in government classes (namely, AP government courses) must end now.