Unique Mid-Term Assignment Serves as Impetus for Harvard Essay Contest

May 16, 2013
by Doug Gavel

How do Europeans make democracy work? It is certainly a complex challenge considering the myriad municipal, national and supranational institutions involved and the current economic challenges facing the continent.

The question served as the mid-term assignment this semester in the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) course “Global Europe: Democracy, Policy and Governance" (DPI 431), taught by Muriel Rouyer, adjunct professor in public policy at HKS and a professor of political science in France since 2004. It was Rouyer's idea to turn the assignment into an essay contest by engaging the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) as the contest sponsor.

"As an expert on European democracy, I try to present the EU as a fascinating and challenging experience of transnational democracy in the making," Rouyer says. Her students were given free rein in formatting, with the only instruction being to be creative in answering the question relying upon the knowledge acquired in class.

"I think creativity is very important, even when dealing with 'path-dependent' policies," she says. "Europe is all too often perceived as an overly bureaucratic and boring matter and one way to escape this is to appropriate it in entertaining ways."

The result was an interesting and often entertaining smorgasbord of diverse and provocative papers -- ranging from a political fiction where the (future) president of the EU reflects on the federal evolution of the Union, to a play featuring a heated family discussion about Europe and democracy; from a chart with different criteria of democracy to a Machiavelli-like essay on what to expect from democracy in Europe. Rouyer says the submissions included both serious academic reflections and some very personal testimony of how the EU helped civil society awaken democracy in Romania.

The contest winner was Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) student Leah Schabas with her creative and visionary short story written in the spirit of Voltaire, “The Case of the Cucumber,” a clever tale about two young students who crisscross Europe searching for avenues to effect political change.

"HKS and Harvard students have great talent and yes, Europe too has talent (although it is heavily tested at the moment)," Rouyer says. "I certainly hope that I was able as professor to help build a bridge between the two and encourage creative thinking about democracy. What better place than HKS to do that?"

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Adjunct Professor Muriel Rouyer

Muriel Rouyer, adjunct professor of public policy

"Europe is all too often perceived as an overly bureaucratic and boring matter and one way to escape this is to appropriate it in entertaining ways."

Leah Schabas

Graduate School of Education student Leah Schabas wrote the winning essay