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The Poverty of Politics

Some advice for the Class of 2018

By Joshua B. Lipson

As far as I knew for the longest time, politics was my first adult love, dominating lunch table conversations and bar mitzvah decorations, spurning my advances with the cold reality of the faraway voting age.

In high school I found the Junior State of America, a movement of like-minded political wunderkinder, made some fine friends, and learned some serious trade secrets: People need to be shepherded, too much critical thinking will get you clobbered, good politicians are usually nothing more than egomaniacal yentas.

Disillusioned as I had become, I nevertheless came to Harvard certain that the political scene was where I would make my debut. Too much of a libertine spirit to join either the Democrats or the Republicans, I set up shop at the Institute of Politics, tucked behind clinical glass doors in the central building of the Harvard Kennedy School complex. I mingled with Capitol Hill suits, ran from forum event to forum event, and spent a few years writing and editing international relations journalism at a pretty good publication. For the first time in my life, I was matched on African political obscurities and far outstripped on legislative trivia by everyone in sight.

I took seminars on British politics and Nigerian religious conflict, interviewed renowned experts, and collected a list of foreign ministers I’d heard speak. Blessedly, I chose Near Eastern languages and civilizations over government and social studies, but it was a close call. But what I gained in immersion, I lost in new perspective—when I dredged up insights from my jaunts into psychology and artificial intelligence, my immediate peers, convinced that politics’ outer bounds were 18th century philosophy and 20th century economic theory, appeared to be at a loss.

In 2010, I once noted to myself that I could never imagine studying either English or computer science—that I was a man made for the middle disciplines, as it were. Post-thesis and post-concentration, I’m reminded by my new freedom of the deep resonance of both poetry and artificial intelligence with my curiosity—and have begun to imagine alternate universes of inspiration and companionship that I passed by, deluded into believing that politicos were the big thinkers among our lot. After swimming for years among acquaintances who sacrificed their talents at the altar of Party X or Party Y (dull authoritarian bands, both of them) or the sclerotic culture of the Beltway, I found politics more foreign than I’d ever known.

Since my first brushes with metaphysics in 11th grade philosophy class—the same year I said goodbye to the Abrahamic—I have been consumed by a need to question fundamental assumptions about reality, consciousness, the self, political economy, history, and the like. I doubt that I was born with extreme open-mindedness, but it has become my one and only rallying cry. And for what it’s worth, the team of campus liberals who preach it appear to be no less hidebound than their conservative rivals. Genuine open-mindedness about social paradigms has taken up new residence since the days of Locke and Rousseau—in the worlds of technology, cognitive science, and poetry, I would venture—and has left seekers of understanding in the political realm stranded and ostracized. Had I invested more times in these circles earlier, I imagine I’d be exiting Harvard a much more profoundly changed thinker.

This is not to say I have lost everything of my former self: I have spent my last two columns flying the realist banner over Kiev, and I just completed a thesis about—just guess—Israeli political history. I remain musical with difficult questions in international politics because I revel in difficult questions—but I suspect the answers lie in the world of interdisciplinary cross-pollination, most accessible to curious folks well-trained in the quantitative and hard sciences. I once bought into the feel-good canard that what you studied as an undergrad didn’t really matter—but four years later, I have a revision to offer for those coming after me: Study something that teaches you to think in new and unintuitive ways, and immerse yourself in like circles.

Ditch gov; challenge yourself with CS.

And Arabic can stay, but I’m quite biased.

Joshua B. Lipson '14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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