What the Founding Fathers Read


I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

One thought on “What the Founding Fathers Read

  1. Interesting that you would post another blog on the same as this one with the title,
    “The Unruly Origins of American Democracy”.

    I have been reflecting for some time on the newish book by Ben Lynerd, now at Christopher Newport University in political science, Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals.
    [Oxford, 2014].

    The way he tells the story, it sounds as if John Locke appeared on the scene and then game over, that was all anyone read, or had to read. Liberty and small government were the goals from the get go, only “momentarily shaken by the Great Depression” [p.18]. No mention of being shaken by enormous inequality during African American slavery, or the immense demands for a huge central government to carry out the Civil War to end slavery, and still more the huge central government presence needed for the battles by Martin Luther King and many others to put an end to discrimination and Jim Crow laws.

    There must have been more voices in the past. We need to better understand how some voices got more attention than others, both in the past, as well as today, during a deeply contested period of US democracy.

    Many new books, blogs, ideas, et al are in play today, as well as people organizing others via internet venues for publishing arguments and calls to action. In short, not only “unruly origins”, but also “unruly daily practices of American democracy.”

    And then the question – how and why do some “rise to the top”, get noticed, become the focus,
    in the midst of a great plethora of possibilities?

    Thanks for the reminder that American democracy is a game always in play.


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