USC Price School of Public Policy

Price students tackle big questions about role of government in new discussion series

December 19, 2016

Assistant Professor Michael Thom, left, has established a monthly conversations series for Price students to explore notions of freedom and examine fundamental questions about free societies, including the role government. (Photo by David Giannamore)

By Cristy Lytal

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Assistant Professor Michael Thom posed a question to a group of undergraduates and master’s students from the USC Price School of Public Policy: Should the government allow school choice?

“In a vacuum, it’s a good idea,” said senior Jordan Lopez. “But as we’ve seen that play out, it has its drawbacks for sure — namely, taking away resources from already underperforming schools.”

Numerous other students chimed in, and the discussion touched on everything from charter schools to home schooling to voucher systems. The students didn’t reach a consensus, but they listened to each other’s diverse viewpoints with thoughtfulness, engagement and respect.

Thom created the discussion group through the On-Campus Faculty Partnership program of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University. With support from a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, IHS partners with faculty across the country to host extracurricular events that explore ideas of freedom and consider fundamental questions about free societies.

At USC Price, these extracurricular events have taken the form of a monthly series of conversations about regulation and personal choice that fall under the broad theme of “Should the Government …?” To prepare for the discussions, the students read articles and materials that provide background and differing perspectives on the issues, ranging from minimum wage and gun control to school choice and free speech on college campuses.

Junior Kylie Sedgwick appreciates having a dedicated forum for these important discussions.

“Like many other students here,” Sedgwick explained, she doesn’t “make enough time to talk about things like this. You tend to get really caught up in doing the required reading for your class, and you just keep moving on with the things you have to do. So I’m really excited to have a space to talk about issues like this.”

Seeing different perspectives

Assistant Professor Michael Thom (Photo by David Giannamore)

Michael Thom (Photo by David Giannamore)

Master of Public Policy student Raul Martinez values the exposure to a wide diversity of opinions.

“I feel that Mike Thom does a really good job of seeing who’s more conservative, who’s more liberal, and bringing those people together and having a good roundtable discussion,” Martinez said. “I always think a healthy exchange is good, as long as everybody’s respectful.”

Junior Kennedy Reese agreed: “I like to hear differing perspectives so that I can be aware of different solutions.”

Thom selected the students with the goal of creating a group that represented diverse views, experiences and educational programs at USC Price. He ended up with 11 enthusiastic participants — an ideal size for casual, comfortable and intimate dialogue.

“I enjoy this kind of stuff,” said senior Luke Holthouse.

Lopez added: “It’s like a book club for politics.”

Thom has found it interesting that the students “are very comfortable with freedom in some places of their lives, but not others.” For example, most of the students preferred less individual freedom in determining a minimum wage, but wanted more individual freedom in choosing schools.

Opinions have been even more varied when it comes to the balance of power among the federal, state and local government.

Of course, the point is not what students think, but rather the fact that they’re thinking about the role of the government in society, noted Thom, who hopes to continue the series into the spring.

“They’re all public policy or public administration students, so these are the things we’ll have to confront as public servants, as voters and as citizens,” he said.