WRI 207

Governing Humans
Keith Shaw
Fall 2018
T/TH 3:00pm-4:20pm

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Arguing for the newly proposed Constitution in 1788, James Madison succinctly identified the paradox of political design: human imperfection necessitates government, yet governments can only be composed of imperfect human beings. But what, exactly, are the flaws of human nature that make political life so tragic? And can humans govern humans to solve, or at least mitigate, the worst consequences of those failings? What progress has contemporary scholarship made in answering these questions—or are we no better off than Madison in this respect? This Writing Seminar explores root problems in political philosophy, branching into literary studies and the social and natural sciences in search of compelling, or at least plausible, answers. We begin by analyzing Henry Adams’s popular novel Democracy, published anonymously in 1880, in light of received political theory from America's founding. Next, we explore the evolving coverage and the final results of the 2018 midterm elections, using our preferred disciplinary tools to uncover the implications of our democratic choices on our intellectual pursuits. The course ends with a rigorously researched, disciplinarily grounded argument pointing to our future work in an academic concentration. 

Governing Humans is unique among Writing Seminars in being customized for Princeton’s new cohort of transfer students. It asks students to identify and articulate the fruits of their previous writing instruction while adapting those hard-won skills for their work at Princeton, with its emphasis on independent research embedded in a scholarly field, culminating in the senior thesis. The 207 curriculum requires students to “test drive” the work of a practicing scholar, while making allowances for the still-to-come disciplinary expertise that will be cultivated in their concentration. As part of their research work, students will be paired with a graduate student or faculty mentor in their chosen field of study. This mentor will not only provide discipline-specific guidance in their research work in Governing Humans, but help their students imagine how their project could be  adapted and developed if they were to pursue further work in the field.

This course fulfills the university writing requirement for transfer students.