itical landscape, the Public Affairs Conversation (PACON) began at St. Olaf as a program aimed at fostering constructive discussions among students, enabling them to apply a new liberal arts perspective to political discourse both at St. Olaf and after graduation. PACON is a year-long program for juniors and seniors that consists of two semester-long courses and a paid internship. The program promises to develop students academically and professionally while providing them with a broad understanding of social issues.
PACON allows students to think about public affairs and issues in an interdisciplinary way. The program is designed to combine normative and empirical methods to approach these problems while incorporating the philosophical, historical and political facets of issues. Students who participate in the program actively engage in discussion forums and dialogues about the history and origins of contemporary political debate.
During the first course of PACON, students are assigned a book that links the contemporary debate to the philosophy of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Students consider and discuss liberalism, communitarianism, utilitarianism, feminism and ethical issues surrounding race.
The course also looks at the U.S. Constitution and other key historical documents and events.
“PACON is a good environment to engage with contemporary political issues in a way that does not often happen in class,” current PACON studen Nate Webster ’17 said. “What is interesting about PACON is that you not only get the theoretical background but also apply it to contemporary issues. Whereas in other classes you are often constrained by either subjects or you’re limited to just studying theory and not really applying it in relevant ways to current events. Because of that, I think it brings out more candid and more impassioned debates.”
The second course focuses heavily on case studies. Students use empirical and normative approaches combined with the historical exposition gained from the first course to examine each case. Course materials examining civil discourse are intertwined with these new methods of study, provoking disagreement and debate while enabling students to engage in discussion on a range of perspectives and topics.
“It is important that civil discourse is more than just polite, but civil discourse should be open, frank, [have] a searching quality, and constructive feedback. I think that a characteristic of a good liberal art education is that you do consider evidence, think historically and philosophically, normatively. And you also seek out opposing views,” PACON professor Dan Hofrenning said.
Outside the classroom, PACON places its students into paid internship positions that can be completed at any point in the year. Students work closely with the Piper Center to find internships with organizations involved in public policy, especially in government and nonprofit positions.
“What makes PACON particularly effective is that students are given a stipend to do an internship that deals with social issues,” Webster said. “Students are required to engage in the processes that they are studying in class, which I don’t think many other classes do.”
PACON is sponsored by The Institute for Freedom and Community. Although the Institute has secured the resources to financially support the courses, the content of courses is administered by St. Olaf faculty. The Institute also sponsors co-curricular programs and a series of lectures that connect to PACON courses. They have hosted a conference on political disagreement, a panel on the Iranian nuclear deal by Sen. Richard Lugar (R – Ind., Ret.), a discussion of racial injustice by Caribbean philosopher Dr. Charles Mills and another panel on capitalism and wealth by Chicago professor of economics Dr. Deirdre McCloskey.
“We hope to further the civic mission of the college,” Hofrenning said. “It’s not only a public affairs conversation, but really represents the perspective of a liberal art that the world needs. If you look at the political process in 2016, it’s those values of the liberal arts that are missing, and our belief is the more we can encourage our students to think of addressing these public issues when they leave the college then we will have been successful.”