What’s Up Alum? – Ryan Pevnick

6 Dec

Ryan Pevnick, UHP/CCAS '03

Ryan Pevnick ’03 graduated from the University Honors Program with a major in Political Science.  Ryan is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University where he teaches courses both in the history of political thought and contemporary democratic theory.  His book, Immigration and the Constraints of Justice, was published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press.

I came to GW with some vague interests in journalism and politics.  A bit over a decade later, I find myself teaching political theory at NYU – an urban university in many ways similar to GW.  While this is not an outcome I could have anticipated (or even conceived), it did grow out of a series of experiences – some predictably cliché, some idiosyncratic and fortuitous – that came together at GW.

GW is always an exciting place, and certainly was so while I was there.  Protests of the IMF’s structural adjustment plans had tear gas flying just outside of Thurston Hall with students – on both sides – arrested.  During the Bush-Gore election that threatened to bring the world’s oldest constitutional democracy to its knees, I had worked the day doing exit polling for a conglomerate of large media organizations.  It was only when I returned home that I found out that this organization’s misleading reports were at the center of the electoral controversy.

Then, of course, the events of 9/11 shook the world.  They brought a realization – both obvious and stunning – that political ideas have real consequences, and not just in the beltway parlor game sense.  When it suddenly presented itself in the streets around our apartments in the form of tanks, humvees, and well-armed soldiers, the coercive force that underlies even democratic government could not be so easily held out of mind.  Finally, in my senior year and in the wake of 9/11, came the seemingly inevitable push to invade Iraq.  The protests of that push, marching past my apartment, were a part of daily life, as was the recognition of their fruitlessness.

These events brought forth important questions:

  • What would a just society look like and is the hope for such a society a reasonable one?
  • What, if anything, makes government use of coercion different from the exercise of coercive force by private individuals?
  • What allows democratic regimes to persist in the midst of deep disagreement?

Especially in the face of such difficult questions, the gift of a good education is humility.  It makes one strikingly aware of how little one understands, how limited is one’s knowledge and perspective.

I left GW more curious and more aware of my limitations, anxious to consider these questions, to understand better how the great figures in the history of political theory – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, Rawls, and so on – had sought to answer them.

Shortly after graduating, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in political theory at the University of Virginia.  I spent six years there, lucky to have the opportunity to join a long enduring historical conversation about these questions – one that can give a more meaningful context to the daily battles of Beltway politics.

Today I am fortunate to spend my time still pursuing – with students and colleagues – the questions that arose out of the excitement and terror of those days in D.C.  I wrote a book on immigration, and articles on topics such as the place of judicial review in a democratic society, the circumstances under which it is appropriate to restrict basic liberties, and the conditions under which citizens have duties to obey laws with which they disagree.  This affords opportunities to gain a bit of understanding, but often simply a greater appreciation of the limits of our ability to make sense of the important events in which we find ourselves.

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