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Here’s a simple fact, one that University President Amy Gutmann doesn’t want you to know: if you really want to, you can coast through your eight semesters at Penn. Some classes are just easier than others. And let’s face it — a lot of students at Penn are intelligent enough that they can take classes that will not challenge them and walk away with a transcript full of A’s.

As students at one of the most prestigious and dynamic universities in the nation, we have the unique opportunity to do a little exploration during our four years here. This is exactly the frame of mind I was in last semester when I registered for Political Science 498 — American Conservatism. I’m a die-hard liberal who has championed some extremely progressive causes through the organizations I’m involved with, but I thought it would be fun to explore a topic slightly out of my comfort zone.

Was the course easy? No. It was a 400-level seminar with eight students, an extensive reading list and a syllabus that called for discussion of a multitude of hot-button issues. Add to that the fact that I was the only liberal in the room, and you can conceptualize exactly how out of place I actually was.

Regardless, this course was just the sort of thing I was looking for. At that point I had a pretty thorough knowledge of the political philosophy and history behind the liberal movement, but I had absolutely no idea what the philosophy was behind the conservative movement, or if any such school of thought even existed.

I found myself alone on several issues that we discussed throughout the semester. A topic that generated a particularly heated discussion came out of left field — pornography. Some people in the room, the professor included, argued that pornography was responsible for breaking down the moral fiber of our society. The only female student in the course said that pornography was “degrading to women everywhere.” They did not take kindly to my position that some women felt empowered by sex and that pornography did not have a corrosive effect on the “moral fiber of our society” (whatever that actually means). Needless to say, I was the only left-of-center student in the room.

Though I ended up in the minority on most issues we discussed (at one point, the professor actually said, “Dennie, your position is so flawed, I don’t even know where to begin”), American Conservatism was probably one of the best courses I’ve taken at Penn. It forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to examine issues from a conservative standpoint, which wasn’t something I did on a regular basis.

Upon completion of the course, I had a newfound knowledge of the history of the conservative movement that allowed me to respect it more than I had before. We unabashedly examined some of the bleaker moments of the movement (one article from the 1970s was titled, “My Negro Problem — & Ours”) as well as some of its greatest triumphs (the ascent of Reagan was a particularly jubilant moment). Ultimately, I walked away with a comprehensive timeline of the formation of a movement that continues to define political dialogue.

I hope my experience as detailed here encourages others to be a little more courageous with their course choices. Sure, you can get away with loading your transcript with courses from your favorite department, but why would you want to? This is one of the few times in our lives when we will easily be able to branch out and explore and gain knowledge in fields previously unknown.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.” Make our founder proud. Take a chance. You won’t regret it.

Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, N.Y. He is the former chairman of the Lambda alliance. His e-mail address is

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