Think About It
Program challenges University’s top
by Andrew Shurtleff
provided me with a foundation in political, social and
economic theory that has made me more informed.
As a result, I do not approach current events and issues
from a single perspective.”
Mary Catherine Wellons,
By Dan Heuchert
Conspicuous in Michael
Smith’s third-year Political
and Social Thought seminar is a jar with a hole cut in the
lid. Whenever students use the word “like” as a verbal
placeholder, they must deposit a nickel in the jar. It’s,
like, behavior modification for students who should know better.
That may be the least taxing demand that Smith makes on his students,
who nonetheless appear to thrive under his expectations.
The Political and Social Thought program, now in its 26th year,
is believed to be the University’s oldest interdisciplinary
major. Its participants are a Who’s Who of student leaders;
its graduates regularly win top fellowships and go on to prestigious
PST, as it is known in shorthand, is a highly selective program
within a highly selective university. Each year, Smith receives
more than 50 applications from rising third-year students for
about 20 coveted spots. (“I try to discourage people from
applying for whom it doesn’t suit,” he said.) After
reviewing an essay, a graded paper from another course, at least
one letter of recommendation and transcripts, he attempts to select
a class with diverse interests and pursuits.
“Not everyone has a 3.96 [grade-point average],” insisted
Smith, now in his seventh year with the program and fourth as
its director. “I don’t do any social engineering.
I just pick the students with the most compelling rationale to
Those selected will face two years of a rigorous curriculum, including
18 hours of “area studies” drawn from three different
disciplines, plus six hours of courses on political and social
thought or its historical foundations. A student might choose,
for example, child poverty, public policy and equity in America
for her area studies; she then must take two 300-level-or-higher
courses for each area, drawn from three different disciplines,
programs or departments.
The centerpieces of the program are two yearlong seminars, which
Smith leads. The largely self-paced, fourth-year seminar is dedicated
to writing an 80-page-plus thesis under the direction of a faculty
mentor. The third-year seminar is the one in which the PST scholars
cut their teeth.
Each week, the students are expected to read one or two books
tackling political and social thought from a different perspective.
They write a two- to three-page
paper and then participate in a spirited in-class discussion.
“My problem in class is to make space for everyone, not
to extract answers from them,” Smith said.
The result is pure academic dynamite. “Bring together highly
motivated students, put them in the same room, give them good
books to read — it’s a recipe for success,”
The pace — which students describe as “challenging”
and “demanding” — would be stressful for any
student, but many of the PST majors live dual lives as student
leaders. Ian Marcus Amelkin heads the Young Democrats; Priya Parker
is the founder of the pro-diversity group Sustained Dialogue;
Luke Wagner is an All-Atlantic Coast Conference swimmer and former
president of the U.Va. chapter of Amnesty International. The résumés
go on and on.
“Highly motivated, good students don’t do it in only
one area,” Smith said. What’s more, everyone has a
busy schedule, so it’s not allowed to be an excuse. “One
of the class ethics is that none of that can count as an excuse
for not being prepared for class,” he added.
The classes forge tight bonds from hours of stimulating discussion,
intellectual thrusts and parries, and the duress of having Smith
closely review their work. This year’s fourth-year class
fields an intramural soccer team. Last year’s group brewed
In short, they form an intellectual community and have a good
time together, while learning a scholarly approach to life.
“PST provided me with a foundation in political, social
and economic theory that has made me more informed,” said
fourth-year student Mary Catherine Wellons. “As a result,
I do not approach current events and issues from a single perspective,
but from a multi-perspective.
“As a result of PST and other influences, I am constantly
trying to expose myself to as many cultures and perspectives as
possible. I believe that only then is it possible to have a true
understanding of a problem … and thus seek its solution.
I am dedicated to a life where I am always seeking a new perspective
that will challenge my own,” Wellons said.
Adds Kristin Tracz, another fourth-year PST major: “PST
— or more specifically, discussing the issues with the other
students in seminar — has made me much more aware of who
is making the argument in a given work, what the author’s
biases may be, what perspective he or she would be writing from,
etcetera. It has also made me consider my own ‘fundamentals’
— what are truly universal rights and liberties, versus
things that are certainly nice to have but not essential to a
The ability to draw upon and make coherent arguments from a variety
of viewpoints makes PST majors very attractive to the interview
committees that hand out major graduate scholarships, notes Nicole
F. Hurd, director of the Office for Undergraduate Excellence (see
“There is so much breadth there,” Hurd said. “They
get grounded in political and social thought and philosophical
thinking, and it lends itself well to applying that to multiple
Many of the fourth-year PST majors have graduate school in mind,
although several say they plan to put it off for a few years while
they pursue other, related passions. Parker, for instance, plans
to pursue international relations or peace studies, but first
will become program director for the Sustained Dialogue Campus
Project at its international headquarters in Washington; Amelkin
wants to get into public interest law, but hopes to teach high
school first. Truman Scholar Katie Hamm wants to work with impoverished
families before pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy or psychology.
Meanwhile, another group of second-year students are pondering
their PST applications.
“I love this program,” Smith said. “I get to
work with great students. I get to push them a little, beyond
where they think they can go. I become friends with them after
“It’s sort of the ideal academic experience.”