Preparing Americans for Life in a Democracy


Recently someone asked me, “If you were given a couple of million dollars to start a center, what kind of center would you create?” Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am advocate for the study of American history.  I am convinced that the study of our national past is essential to the cultivation of American democracy.  I even envisioned such a center in the appendix of my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  I imagine that such a center would look something like what we do at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, only in brick and mortar form.

My second choice for a well-funded center would be something devoted more broadly to the humanities and American democracy.  This is probably why I was so intrigued by a piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed titled “Democratizing the Great Books.”  It is written by three Columbia University history professors–Casey Blake, Roosevelt Montas, and Tamara Mann Tweel.

Here is a taste:

In December, some 250 students, professors, university administrators and other citizens attended a daylong conference organized by Columbia University’s Center for American Studies on the theme of “Democracy and Education.” The event took the centennial of the publication of John Dewey’s classic book of that title as an occasion to consider how schools, colleges and universities might reinvigorate civic education with new pedagogies and partnerships with community organizations.

The stakes could not be higher. As Dewey wrote, “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” The recent election added urgency to the day’s discussion, throwing in relief the question “What does democratic education mean today?”

Years ago our keynote speaker, the political philosopher Danielle Allen, grappled with that very question as she taught Great Books courses to night students at the University of Chicago. The Declaration of Independence became the sole text for one of those seminars, as she invited the students to join her in parsing each line of the country’s founding document. Allen explained in her book Our Declaration, “I wanted my students to claim the text …. I wanted them to understand that democratic power belonged to them, too, that they had its sources inside themselves …. I wanted them to own the Declaration of Independence.”

Ownership of the democratic tradition is key to a civic education. Allen understood that if students formed a personal relationship with a text, if they acquired it as a work that awakened their own civic intelligence, they would move from passive recipients of a heritage that they didn’t believe was theirs to active participants in shaping their country’s democratic future.

Allen is not alone in this insight. Programs across the country have begun to teach Great Books to underserved populations, be it:

Read the entire piece here.  And while your reading I will be sitting here waiting for an e-mail from a big donor.  🙂