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Great Explorations

Kenneth E. Sharpe, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science, retires this spring after teaching political philosophy, practical ethics, Latin American politics, and foreign policy for more than 40 years. Surrounded by books and artifacts, he discussed his life and Swarthmore.

How do you feel about leaving?

It’s very difficult—this is a dream job. How can one not love teaching students who are so committed to learning and inquiry and so compassionate? They really want to understand and then transfer that knowledge to the world. I’ve never had a dull moment in terms of teaching. The students were always teaching me by the questions they asked—for me that’s always made teaching a process of social engagement and collaboration, not a one-way street. Swarthmore enabled me to teach and research in a broad range of fields, and the students helped me puzzle things out. I couldn’t have done what I did without the support to explore, or without the reflectiveness and probing minds and open hearts of the students and my colleagues. My 45 years as a teacher here have also been 45 years as a student. It has been quite wonderful for me.

What have been among your favorite research topics?

The topics that captured my imagination and concern over the years have changed. Theoretical concerns about the balance between human agency and structural determination—how to create the spaces for positive human action and wise decision-making—have been another. A third has been substantive concerns about things like when and how the misuse of political and economic power is successfully challenged, the erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, the causes and alternatives of irrational government policies that have led to foreign interventions and to the war on drugs.   

How has communicating across cultures enriched your experiences?

I’ve loved doing field work and research on every project I have done and relished the active deliberation and reflection with the colleagues and students I’ve worked with, and become friends with. Each topic has taken me down unexpected trails—through coffee fields in the highlands of the Dominican Republic, on foot and on mule; across the manufacturing floor of automotive plants; into executive suites and prosecutors’ offices; and into legislative and bureaucratic offices in Washington, Mexico City, and Central America. Whether it’s talking to farmers or interviewing Contra attack survivors in Nicaragua, or talking to policymakers and politicians and Salvadoran guerrillas, or shadowing doctors in a palliative care unit, I’ve had to teach myself how to talk to nonacademics and learn from them. Quite often I found that solving one problem forced another onto my research agenda.

What were some pivotal moments in your career?

Studying peasant organizing and consciousness-raising in the Dominican Republic led me to explore the international political economies of coffee and automobile manufacturing. Studying U.S. drug war policy in Latin America led me to shift my focus to the politics that sustained a drug war in America by turning a public health problem into a criminal problem and wreaking havoc, while being destined, inevitably, to fail. Forty years ago, I never would have imagined my current focus on practical wisdom—how the major institutions we work in can be designed to corrode or encourage the judgment and virtue we need to flourish. These research experiences, as frustrating as they have often been, have also been deeply moving and powerful learning experiences.