|Liberal? Conservative? Award Recognizes Professor Shaw's Course for Its Unbiased Examination of Both
November 12, 2010
Contact: Bill Giduz
| Professor Brian Shaw has been teaching at Davidson since 1982.
Davidson Professor of Political Science Brian Shaw was grand prize winner of this year's "Spirit of Inquiry" award from the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. The annual award recognizes a North Carolina professor for an outstanding college course.
Shaw was selected for "Foundations of Liberalism," a course he created and has taught semi-annually for about six years.
He was nominated without his knowledge by Alex Pitsinos, a 2010 Davidson graduate in economics who took Shaw's course as a sophomore. It was his first political science course at Davidson, and made a big impression. Pitsinos said, "I had a lot of great courses at Davidson, but none other affected me and my friends to the point that we were still talking about them in our senior year."
Pitsinos came across a call for "Spirit of Inquiry" nominations by chance last spring during his final weeks at Davidson. Reading its qualifications, he recognized Shaw's course as an ideal prize candidate.
The award is named "Spirit of Inquiry" to express the Pope Center's belief that college courses should promote open-minded exploration within a discipline. Selection of the winners is based on a balanced and fair presentation of material, selection of course readings that present multiple perspectives on controversial issues, a classroom environment that allows student expression of ideas, and encouragement of open investigation and inquiry.
Students from 11 colleges and universities around the state submitted 59 nominations for this year's competition. Pitsinos never told Shaw about his nomination. Shaw found out only upon receiving an e-mail notifying him that he had won. The award carries a $1,000 prize for Shaw and $250 for Pitsinos as the nominator.
At the awards dinner at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, N.C., on November 4, Shaw spoke about his course and the value of courses that encourage the free and open exchange of ideas.
"Foundations of Liberalism" examines the different interpretations of the liberal tradition-from John Locke in the seventeenth century to John Rawls in the twentieth. Shaw begins by explaining that all current American political movements are "liberal" in the sense of sharing a fundamental commitment to the core liberal values of individual rights, political democracy, toleration and economic liberty.
"We're all liberals now," Shaw said. "Even contemporary conservatives are liberals insofar as the tradition they want to ‘conserve' is the modern liberal tradition."
The course is divided into three sections, with Shaw leading his students in reading two at a time the works of six political theorists. Besides Locke and Rawls, the course covers Immanuel Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek. Pitsinos was impressed at how expertly Shaw "channeled" each author in class to explain their theories, but left it to students to decide which philosophy they supported.
Shaw explained, "We address both liberalism and conservatism very seriously in the class. When we study Locke, I work for Locke. When we study Mill, I work for Mill. But I take care to not reveal my own personal inclination."
As someone with a long-standing interest in politics, Pitsinos found the approach refreshing and stimulating. He said, "You go through life with ideas about politics you've developed from the influence of teachers, friends and parents. But Dr. Shaw had no agenda. He didn't care what we ended up believing. He just wanted us to make sure we knew why we believed what we did."
Shaw acknowledged that the reading is dense and the course is challenging. "It's not for the faint-hearted," he said. He gives students a test at the conclusion of their study of each of the three pairs of authors. The tests are take-home and open book, but require students to think deeply. The test essentially mimics classroom discussion. In a long prompt, Shaw asks students to examine some aspect of the philosophies of the two theorists, then explain which they adhere to and why.
"I tell them they'll need a couple of days to just read the question and map out a strategy for responding to the very specific demands of the prompt," Shaw said.
Pitsinos looked back fondly on that evaluation process. "Tests often ended up in all-night sessions with friends," he said. "Not because we were procrastinating, but because we were bouncing ideas off each other."
John Baden, chairman of the Foundation for Research in Economics and the Environment (FREE), in Bozeman, Mt., proposed the Spirit of Inquiry Award several years ago. He was one of the five judges of this year's contest and spoke at the awards dinner.
Baden described academia as all too often a "closed system" with "an extraordinary degree of conformity of ideas." He said that the Pope Center seeks out courses and instructors who encourage a genuine diversity of ideas.
Jane S. Shaw, president of the Pope Center, concluded the evening by noting that the Pope Center often criticizes higher education. But the "Spirit of Inquiry" event, she said, "is a wonderful way to spend time thinking about and learning about the best in our colleges and universities."
Two other professors were recognized at the dinner as runner-up winners-Derek Yonai at Campbell University for his course "World of Business," and North Carolina State University's Andrew Taylor for his course "Public Choice and Political Institutions."
Pitsinos, who now works in an advisory group at the Charlotte office of a global accounting firm, was unable to attend. But he was excited by the success of his nomination, and happy that it brought some recognition to Davidson. He said, "The Davidson faculty is fantastic, and I feel that it's often not properly recognized. Dr. Shaw's teaching methods are particularly special at a particularly special place."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,920 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.