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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Teaching and Studying Politics in the Era of Populism

by Simon Lightfoot 19th September 2019

How can lecturers equip students with the tools to make sense of the world, amid a changing political climate? Simon Lightfoot offers his thoughts.

2019 is clearly a fascinating year in which to be studying Politics and International Relations. Populism, whether in the form of President Trump, Brexit, President Erdoğan or Bolsonaro, is seen to be on the rise and the traditional forces of conservatism, social democracy and liberalism are deemed to be in decline or in crisis. It can feel that we are at the end of an era. Two articles sum up the perceived changes. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama published his essay on ‘The end of history' proclaiming the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism”. Thirty years later, in an interview with the Financial Times President Putin of Russia was able to claim that “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose”. Studying Politics and IR therefore at times feels like a moving target.

What implications does this have for teaching politics and IR?


The difficulty is to equip students with the tools to make sense of the world. My university life started one year after the Berlin Wall came down, which meant textbooks quickly dated so we had to rely on newspapers for our information. Given the limited range of papers available it was relatively easy to ensure you understood the ideological filter the paper employed and thus you could make a judgement on the reliability of the “story”.

The challenge of teaching politics in the era of ‘fake news' and multiple sites of information is whether the filter can be identified. If your newsfeed comes from Facebook or you receive information from Twitter, how can you judge the reliability of the source? This is a particular issue in the ‘post truth' era when the notions of expertise are routinely questioned and opposing views dismissed as ‘fake news'. Can you teach about fake news without accusations of bias? This can bring challenges in the physical classroom where opposing political viewpoints or religious views can be found within the seminar group. This requires us as teachers to be aware of these problems and ensure classrooms are spaces in which debates can be held in safety.
Can you teach about fake news without accusations of bias? This can bring challenges in the physical classroom where opposing political viewpoints or religious views can be found within the seminar group.

Alongside the obvious challenges, social media offers learning opportunities. Blair argues that Twitter democratises the learning process for students and, clearly, the educational value remains under-explored. Innovative uses of technology must be reflected in wider curricula reforms, including broadening the range of writers and topics studied to reflect the contemporary student body.

Politics and IR also needs to better engage with authentic assessment-tasks that reflect those carried out by graduates in the workplace. Clark and Martin highlight the need for the profession to better articulate the skills politics and IR graduates obtain. This is clearly important in ensuring Politics and IR graduates are able to hold their own in a very competitive and changing contemporary jobs market but also because these skills will help them respond to the changing nature of the jobs market. Embracing education 4.0 will also ensure that these future citizens have the skill sets to ensure they can navigate the moving target of contemporary politics, whatever the trend is thirty years from now.
Featured image: Photo by Gage Skidmore. Available on Wikimedia Commons via CC BY-SA 2.0.