Examining Liberalism

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Brian Shaw’s course in political theory has been recognized for its open-minded exploration of ideas.

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By Bill Giduz

In his final weeks at Davidson last spring, Alex Pitsinos ’10 came across a call for nominations for a teaching award, one that recognizes a specific college course for open-minded exploration within a discipline. North Carolina’s John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy holds the annual “Spirit of Inquiry” competition, selecting winners based on balanced and fair presentation of material, readings that present multiple perspectives on controversial issues, a classroom environment that allows expression of ideas and encouragement of open investigation and inquiry.

Reading the award’s qualifications, Pitsinos recognized Professor of Political Science Brian Shaw’s Foundations of Liberalism as an ideal candidate. The Pope Center agreed, awarding Shaw with its grand prize.

Pitsinos took the course as a sophomore, and it made a big impression. “I had a lot of great courses at Davidson,” he said, “but no other affected me and my friends to the point that we were still talking about it in our senior year.”

Foundations of Liberalism examines different interpretations of the liberal tradition, as Shaw leads his students in reading the works of six political theorists: John Locke, John Rawls, Immanuel Kant, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek.Pitsinos was impressed at how expertly Shaw “channeled” each thinker 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.”

Pitsinos found the approach refreshing and stimulating. He said, “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.”

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