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A Welcome from the Director

Dear Alumni and Friends,

I am delighted to resume leading the Program in Political and Social Thought, as of the Fall Term of 2014.  I have been privileged to be associated with the Program since 1996, when I served as Associate Director to William Lee Miller. Upon his retirement in 1999, then Dean Melvin Leffler appointed me to direct the program as the Thomas C. Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought. I served in this position through 2012, when I took a research leave.

The program was fortunate to be led  for the two years of 2012-14, by the distinguished Professor of History, Allan Megill. A longtime friend and supporter of the program, Professor Megill brought his intellectual rigor and great depth of knowledge to PST students over these years.  The program has gained from his leadership and continuing commitment. Other former Directors, among whom are names well known at UVA and beyond: the founding Director, the political theorist Dante Germino; his successors, the historian H. C. Erik Midelfort and the political and legal philosopher John Simmons; Associate Dean Bill Wilson, who is now Director of Graduate Studies at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation; the historian and ethicist William Lee Miller, who died in 2012 after a long and productive life.
Central to the Program is an engagement with classic texts and arguments, from Plato and Sophocles to Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Kant, and John Stuart Mill;  to such philosophers and social thinkers as John Rawls, Martha Nussbaum, Tzvetan Todorov and Judith Shklar, not forgetting forays into such spaces as Tolstoy’s stunning War and Peace or the brilliant work of playwright Wole Soyinka. 

The aim is not theory for its own sake, but clarity and precision in thought and expression and an awareness of alternative possibilities. If one hallmark of the Program is its commitment to confronting the best or most provoking of what has been thought and written, another hallmark is its commitment to guiding students toward the writing of a substantial work of undergraduate research focused on an important issue or problem in current society, politics, or culture. Here the expertise, goodwill, and labor of many faculty in various departments of the University have been essential to making the Program what it is.

To Friends: We hope that our new Webpage—as well as the Facebook page—will give you some idea of how we are faring today at the University of Virginia. PST is the antithesis of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses).  Such projects are fine in their place—they can be remarkable efficient, for example, in conveying, at long distance, technical information and skills to highly motivated students. But if you want to grasp, at the deepest level, what Adam Smith or Lev Tolstoy or John Rawls mean for us, now, it is hard to do so without disciplined discussion among peers, under the watchful eyes of a seasoned scholar and guide. Even Dante needed his Virgil. 

To Alumni: There are over six hundred of you, and every year 18-22 new graduates are added.  After leaving UVA you have engaged in a remarkable number and variety of occupations in a remarkable number of places. Your paths in life attest not only to your own intelligence, creativity, and energy but also to the value of the Program. Feel free to browse this Website, which will give you some sense of the current shape of the Program. We also invite you to visit and contribute to the Program’s Facebook page, and we especially invite you to join the recently founded PST alumni group on LinkedIn.

Real education is expensive—although ignorance, especially confident ignorance, is more expensive. Consider giving to the Program. Aside from a generous bequest of some years ago from Thomas C. Sorensen, whom we pause to remember at this very moment, and a wonderful gift from Linda Moore Miller endowing a thesis prize in honor of her late husband, the Program has operated on a shoestring, surviving thanks to the generosity of its various Directors and of the many UVA faculty who, year in and year out, go the extra mile to advise students in their research projects. Your gift will help preserve and broaden the Program’s excellence.


Michael J. Smith
Director, Program in Political and Social Thought