When I arrived at MIT to study political science or Course 17, I was a bit unusual. My background, unlike my fellow students, was primarily technical. I had an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering (EE) and a master’s in computer science (CS), which at MIT is called Course 6. But I thought MIT, of all places, would be able to help and guide my transition from Course 6 to Course 17. I knew it would be difficult, but I felt it was something that I had to do. It just seemed to me that, based on my previous political experience, addressing the hard policy problems of the future could benefit from a Course 6 perspective.
I took four courses my first semester, and three of them — foreign policy, political philosophy, and American politics — went well. My grades had previously been based on technical problem sets, projects, or papers, but this was my first experience being graded on my ability to read and express myself in written English. Needless to say, it was pretty stressful, but at this point I was committed.
In these classes, the papers started coming due, and I wrote them, and when I received the papers back, I was doing well! It was a revelation! I worked on length, structure, and organization on 5 to 8 page papers that were due about every couple of weeks to once a month. Thinking back, foreign policy was very historical, so we worked through American foreign policy with lots of supplementary readings. Once secret about MIT is that the undergraduates are just as smart and hardworking as the graduate students, so I attended the undergraduate’s foreign policy lecture, did some extra reading, and wrote some extra papers for graduate credit. The reading was pretty intense but fun. Later on, I taught foreign policy at a small college and dialed back the reading to adjest for the school. After giving the class, I had to dial it back the reading load again because MIT is as advertised — they pile on the work.
In the American politics class I read a bunch of stuff that I never would have read any place else. I especially remember our readings on prairie politics, which bordered on socialism. As an aside to our study of prairie populism, free silver, and agrarian radicalism, we spent a little bit of time looking into the political interpretations of The Wizard of Oz. The farmers of the day were being exploited by the banksters, who were putting them in a no win situation. Williams Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech was an argument for people and against the banks. When I heard Donald Trump speaking after the Iowa Caucuses and saw the connection he had with middle America, I thought back to these issues and arguments.
Political philosophy, once again, was at the undergraduate level, and we read Hobbes, Locke, John Stewart Mill, and Nietzsche. I had always liked political philosophy although I had never studied it very much and, truth be told, I didn’t know very much about it. This class was excellent because it provided a good foundation by reading four classic modern authors. A short biography discussed how brilliant Nietsche was as a young scholar but how he eventually suffered a complete mental collapse. Such concerns seemed quite remote and distant at the time. I was quite surprised at the end of the semester when I cracked with three A’s in Course 17. I was happy and confident.
Political philosophy had one other graduate student, a guy from Oxford, the first I had met after going to a big state school as an undergraduate. However, my Oxford friend stayed at Course 17 for only a year because he understood what a healthy department looked and felt like. My antenna weren’t quite so sensitive, so I lurched headlong into the quirks and idiosyncracies of the department. Recall that I said that I took four courses my first semester, and so far I’ve only mentioned three. They say that at the higher levels of politics, being naive is worse than being malicious, and that was certainly the case in my fourth class.