My Vision for USC and USC PSA

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A while back, before I had ever heard of the University of Southern California, I had the pleasure of listening to a Barnes and Noble Audiobook series on the development of Western Civilization. One of the tapes addressed Virgil’s Aeneid, in some ways the founding myth of Western political culture and certainly one of the most influential books ever written. Before the professor lectured on the opus magnum, however, he gave a brief background on Roman culture and history, the backdrop of the book.

Rome, he explained, was independent of yet connected to Greek civilization, and while Greece could be understood without Rome, Rome could not be understood without Greece. In this way Rome was entirely the younger sibling of its more ancient and flowery Greek brother. And being an offshoot, there was practically no chance that Rome could ever surpass, equal, or even rival Greece in those arts which the Greeks perfected- philosophy, drama, art and sculpture, astronomy, mathematics, and a whole host of other abstractions which indeed were the brainchildren of the Greek mind. It would seem that the Romans, aware and in awe of this comparison, would be utterly ashamed.

But the historical and cultural record does not support that. The Romans, as we all know, were masters in the practical arts, fantastic engineers and innovative inventors, masterly political and legal theorists and capable administrators, talented thinkers and ambitious conquerors. They built an empire which in many ways stood the test of time, and ultimately wound up ruling over the Greeks. Virgil, in the Aeneid, puts it quite concisely:

“Others will cast more tenderly in bronze

Their breathing figures, I can well believe

And bring more lifelike portraits out of marble

Argue more eloquently, use the pointer

To trace the paths of Heaven

And accurately foretell the rising of the stars.

ROMAN, remember by your strength to rule

Earth’s peoples, for your arts shall be these-

To pacify, impose the rule of law,

To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”

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In these words Virgil articulated the essential cultural difference between the Greek mind and the Roman mind. It needs no further explanation.

I immediately took a liking to this little passage and recorded it for personal use; I meant to see how I could apply it to my own life. Though no master, I was certainly (and still am) far more the Greek than the Roman- a poet, a romantic, an intellectual! But the values of the Romans- those virtues which make for great nations and great statesmen- stuck with me far more than the Greek exhortations to excellence and arête.

A few years later I was at the University of Southern California, studying politics and preparing myself for a career in public service. It occurred to me that, in many ways, USC resembled a Rome far more than a Greece. Its humanities programs, its arts, were far, far less developed and emphasized than its hard sciences and management programs, in contrast to the sheer emphasis on humanities associated with the Ivy League and other undoubtedly elite schools a few levels above our endowment. But it has been a matter of pride for me, and for every Trojan, knowing that while the graduates of those wealthier, more cultivated institutions may talk prettier and be snobbier, the graduates of USC and all technical colleges of our ilk would be the movers and shakers of the future, not primarily the repositories of the past.

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Trojans! Another thing!

On the back side of the base of the statue of Tommy Trojan read Virgil’s words:

“Here are provided seats of meditative joy

Where shall arise again the destined reign of Troy…”

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I doubt most people have put as much neurotic thought into these words as I have. But briefly, it seems to me that the quote implies that, here at USC, the minds which will bring forth the future shall be developed, and that that future shall parallel the former glorious golden ages of Western Civilization.

Tommy Trojan himself stands, confident, with his back to the Tutor Campus Center, the center of student government, with his side to Bovard Hall, the administrative center of the university, and with his front toward the Von Kleinsmid Center, that nucleus of political studies at USC. His eyes gaze upon VKC’s globe tower, as though he desired to master the world. He has always reminded me of the fabled Aeneas of Virgil’s lore.

And in making that connection, I found the missing link. We, the Trojans, are in fact they who shall become the Romans of the Earth, just as the Trojans of Virgilian lore were the descendants of that mighty race of Rome that would conquer and reign over the ancient world. Tommy Trojan is Aeneas, our model for emulation, and the Trojan virtues- Faithful, Scholarly, Skillful, Courageous, Ambitious- in varying ways do seem to describe Aeneas, the iron leader who humbly performed his duty and made possible the birth of the Roman people. And the destined Reign of Troy, the New Rome, shall be the world which we the USC Trojans set out to build and rule.

I have no way of knowing whether my school’s founders consciously considered this classical allusion at all when designing the traditions of USC, though something tells me that they did. Even if they didn’t, it is a wonderful heritage connecting us, right here, right now, with the very heritage and fate of Western Civilization itself. Symbolically, and if we live up to the admonitions of Virgil, realistically, a great burden falls upon our shoulders, while we bear a glorious torch.

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Assuming my premise is correct, that we are to rule because we hold the mandate of Virgil and our founders, it would be wise to consider the practical reality of our own pragmatism and duty, those two great virtues of the Romans. And in an academic perspective, it seems that we are quite pragmatic- Viterbi and Marshall, our schools of Engineering and Business, are among our best institutions and the greatest of their kind in the world. And few things drive our modern world more surely than do engineering and business.

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But there is a third institution which at USC is woefully underemphasized, which were we true Romans, true Trojans, would be at least as heavily lauded as Viterbi and Marshall. That is our institution for studying politics and policy, spread out across a variety of disciplines and institutes, not particularly well-known, and in dire need of rejuvenation lest it lay stagnant.

It is not that there is nothing there. In fact, there are a wide array of institutions at USC dedicated firmly to the study of politics and policy, the most notable being the Bedrosian Institute for Governance, the Schwarzenegger Institute for Policy, and the Unruh Institute for Politics. Academic institutions like the Political Science Department, the School of International Relations, the Gould School of Law, and the Sol Price School of Public Policy further this research and bring up generations of scholars of political knowledge. They have incredible faculty and associates, the most notable recent acquisitions including General David Petraeus, Mayor Antonio Villaigairosa, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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But these amazing resources are not centrally coordinated- there is no uniting and overarching vision for USC as a center for political innovation, scholarship, and training in quite the same way that such unitary dreams exist for engineering and business here. And as a result, the institutions become excellent on their own; but they do not acquire the renown they might otherwise know were they more explicitly coordinated.

But this is not simply an administrative mistake on the part of the administration. For clients, as well as servants, have a stake in the issue too. The students of USC drive demand, and in many ways the university responds to what they want in providing opportunities. I am of the opinion that, while there is indeed a vibrant political culture among the students of USC, it is neither widespread enough nor intense enough to garner sufficient support to effect sufficient change. There is much grassroots organization we can do to go about this, and we ought to.

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I have held similar goals for just the USC School of International Relations for about a year now, as I have been working with the International Relations Undergraduate Association for that long and dreaming such ambitions. But as my intellectual and personal interest in politics has expanded beyond international power politics to all aspects of public policy and politics international and domestic, so have my ambitions.

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Therefore I am proud to announce my candidacy for the position of Director of the Political Students Assembly, the primary organ managing and encouraging student political activism and scholarship at USC. It is one of the assemblies on the Program Board and a component of the Undergraduate Student Government, and thanks to the hard work of its current officers, USC has seen a spike in student political activism in the last year. I desire to carry on this work further and further, and contribute to an atmosphere of political activism and civic involvement not only among that class of USC students directly involved in political studies or organizations, but the entire mass of all USC students who have the slightest inkling of an interest in how the affairs of Mankind are managed.

I propose to do this, in general, by increasing PSA support for and outreach to USC’s various political student organizations, (PSA is already excellent at this, so why not expand it?) bringing in yet more and more fascinating speakers from politics, academia, bureaucracy, business, nonprofits, media, and all politically-important sectors, and most importantly, expanding the number and quality of opportunities for USC students to participate in political dialogue and discussion in public. The Unruh Institute and PSA do a good job with this already, with their Students Talk Back panel series and other various panels they do throughout the year. But there are many, many more opportunities we could take advantage of. In particular, I’ve been tossing around ideas of conducting an intercollegiate student roundtable conference on international politics not unlike those held annually at the United States military service academies, holding a temporary-party-based student congress to discuss domestic American politics and policy issues, and holding annual public debates on hot-button issues between student organizations soliciting one side or the other- for example, debates between the Palestinian and Israeli students associations, between pro-Life and pro-Choice groups, etc. And underlying this all must be an increasing collaboration with those various institutions of political study aforementioned, for their resources are, for our present purposes, literally infinite. It is for the ambitious to seize them, and if our administration will not take advantage of these low-hanging fruits, it is all the better that we will.

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There are those who dream of utopias in the clouds, who wish dearly that politics as a concept would disappear entirely and that humans would coexist in peace, harmony, and love. But as the entire human experience suggests, it seems that that is not the case, and that politics will be there wherever there are people. It is therefore among the noblest and most applicable fields of study, one which ought to be cherished by all whom it enamors.

And a general spirit of political scholarship and activism, pumped into the USC student body so far as is possible by the grassroots efforts of a vanguard PSA and its allied student organizations, can only invigorate our greatest minds to think great things, and those slightly lesser to do even greater things. The resources are there. We need only seize them.

Moreover, such a revolution and uplifting of the political dynamism of USC can only cause USC’s politics program to ascend and take its place next to USC’s business and engineering programs. And this is precisely what is necessary for a Roman university, one whose primary strengths are those practical arts which directly contribute to the building and management of human society, to which USC ought to and does aspire.

Virgil calls us, and we must answer him. It is time we all realize the Aeneas within us, and strive to emulate his virtues and cultivate our strengths, in the name of USC, and in the service of Western Civilization. I am prepared to embark.

 

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