Proposal for Great Debates Sophomore Summer

Proposal for Great Debates Sophomore Summer

James Bernard Murphy
Professor of Government
Dartmouth College
Hanover, NH 03755

1) Toward a Common Intellectual Experience at Dartmouth College.

The Harvard philosopher George Santayana was once asked what college students should study.  He said: “It doesn’t matter, so long as they all study the same thing.” Our current curricular principles and practice take little notice of the immense rewards of shared intellectual endeavor, of a common intellectual life among our students.  Soldiers develop deep bonds from shared boot camp, lawyers and doctors from shared professional training, but our students can spend four years in college without sharing a single common intellectual adventure.  Each class at Dartmouth College is a community of students who, despite their very diverse backgrounds and interests, share some common experiences, from the First-Year Orientation Trips, to the Dartmouth Dining Service, to Commencement Exercises.  What they do not currently share is a common intellectual experience, a common initiation into the demands and delights of learning the same things.  There is currently no single course, book, issue, or debate shared by every student in a Dartmouth class.  What kinds of bonds might a Dartmouth class form if they all studied, discussed, debated, and griped about the same ideas together?  A common course would turn the whole campus into one great seminar, in which lively discussions spill out of the classrooms and into the streets, dining halls, and dorms.  We talk a great deal about our college communities, yet fail to provide a curricular basis for a real intellectual community. For a community of teachers and learners, that is a tragedy.
The Dartmouth Experience ought to include a shared intellectual experience.

Until the Civil War, Dartmouth, like other liberal arts colleges in American, had a fixed curriculum for all students.  This curriculum, at Dartmouth and elsewhere, was dominated by classical languages and literature and by basic mathematics.  Not only did every student take the same courses in the same order but every faculty member was expected to teach in every course, ranging from math to classical literature.(1) In those days, the entire college curriculum was a common intellectual experience among all the students and faculty.  As a culminating experience, it was a venerated tradition at American liberal arts colleges, throughout the 19th century, to have the college president himself teach a course to the assembled senior class.  These capstone senior-year courses varied, of course, with the denominational traditions of each school, but all of them aimed to integrate the academic curriculum with the civic, moral, and religious values central to the mission of the college.(2) The college president wanted his senior students to draw connections between what they had studied in college and the larger virtues and aims of adult life.  Beginning in 1796, Dartmouth seniors were being prepared for their role as citizens of a new republic by reading the Federalist Papers.  So from the beginnings of the College, the common education offered at Dartmouth culminated in a common civic education.

In 1946, President John Sloan Dickey continued this tradition of a common civic education at Dartmouth by presenting his proposal for a senior year “Great Issues” course as a requirement for the B.A.  This year-long course blended readings from leading public intellectuals, lectures by distinguished national opinion-leaders, and faculty-led discussions.  Following the hallowed traditions, President Dickey himself played an active role for many years teaching the Great Issues course to groups of four and five hundred seniors.  The Great Issues course ran until 1967 when it was replaced by the Senior Symposia.

The objectives articulated for the Great Issues course are still powerfully relevant for any proposal for a common course aimed at an entire Dartmouth class. Quoting from a 1958 statement of aims:
“1) To provide the members of each Dartmouth senior class with a common intellectual experience.
2) To help develop in Dartmouth men a sense of public-mindedness and a disposition toward participation in community affairs.
3) To help bridge the gap between traditional classroom education and the more informal lifelong education in which the intelligent and mature adult engages.”

2) The Great Issues and Great Debates Today.

President James Wright has announced that providing a common educational experience for each Dartmouth class during the Sophomore Summer is a top priority of his administration.  In part because of Dartmouth’s unique schedule, in which students can select their own pattern of terms on or off campus, a Dartmouth class today has few opportunities for a common intellectual experience other than the Sophomore Summer, in which they are all required to be on campus.  What should that common intellectual experience be?  It should be a kind of civic educational experience, because although our students have very different interests and career plans, almost all of them will become citizens of a democracy or a democratizing nation.  The office of citizen is the one office awaiting all of our students; and yet, we do little in any explicit way to prepare them for it.  Civic education in the context of a liberal arts college should provide an opportunity for students to explore the relation between the classics of liberal learning and the great civic issues of the day.  But today’s students need a new kind of Great Issues course.

Among the many changes at Dartmouth since 1946 is the profusion of new courses offered at the College that deal with great issues.  Students no longer need a special opportunity to study controversies in global economic, social, and political affairs.  Indeed, the center of gravity of the curriculum has shifted significantly from the study of the past to the study of the present.  What students need today is the opportunity to connect the classic books and ideas of the liberal arts with the exigencies of today.  They need to learn about the challenges of democracy not just by reading Samuel Huntington or Robert Putnam but by reading Huntington and Putnam in conjunction with Alexis de Tocqueville.  They need to learn about war and peace not just by reading Robert Kagan and Andrew Bacevich but by reading Kagan and Bacevich in conjunction with Thucydides.  Students need to bring the longer and wider perspectives of the liberal arts to bear on current debates if they are so escape a narrow and faddish partisanship.  They need to see that they have inherited a rich set of reflections that will deeply illuminate today’s controversies.

The original Great Issues course lacked intellectual gravitas: the common curriculum focused on newspapers, periodicals, and governmental reports.  No doubt the Dartmouth faculty and distinguished speakers attempted to provide an intellectual context for these topical sources, but the students never shared in the reading of important classic books.  A new common course for the Sophomore Summer ought to provide greater intellectual depth in the form of some timeless classics of liberal learning.

Among students, the Great Issues course was soon dubbed “Grey Tissues”, not, it seems because of the cerebral intensity of the experience but because of the perceived dullness of the parade of “eminences grises” who were the distinguished guest lecturers.  The list of speakers to have addressed the Great Issues Course is very impressive indeed, from Dean Acheson to Roy Wilkins. (4) It is a Who’s Who of leading political and academic greats of the mid-twentieth century but it is also a safe list: overwhelmingly Anglo-American, moderately liberal in politics, secular or mainstream Protestant.  No Catholic theologians or prelates, no union officials or Army generals, no communists or libertarians.  By some accident, among several hundred names, we find William F. Buckley and Norman Thomas.  In addition to the list being safe, the speakers were almost never paired off in debate, so that students listened to the great man speak but never saw him challenged by another great man.  The lack of structured debate and controversy must have made the speaker series tedious for many students.

A more vibrant common course for the Sophomore Summer would revolve around a set of Great Debates involving classic and contemporary readings as well as speakers and in which deeply opposed views are compared and contrasted.  Such lively debates would be more exciting and thought-provoking for students than any parade of grey eminences.

Each summer course would have the same structure but with varying issues of debate.  For the entire assembled class, each week there would be a principal reading and a principal lecture, either by a member of the Dartmouth faculty or a distinguished guest speaker, followed by a discussion led by a panel of Dartmouth faculty.  Then the students would be broken down into sections of 25 students for a weekly discussion seminar of 65 minutes, led by a Dartmouth faculty member.  Each discussion seminar would combine discussion of the weekly reading and of the weekly lecture.  These Great Debates courses will be focused on controversies of permanent moral and political importance: they will not be Government courses.  Each will be intrinsically interdisciplinary, according to the particular subject-matter involved.

3) Example of a Possible Great Debates Course.

Individual Liberty or Self-Government?

Many of the political controversies in American history stem from a basic tension between two of our most cherished political ideals: individual liberty and democratic self-government.  We are a liberal democracy, meaning that we both protect individual liberty and promote democratic self-government.  Now these goals are often mutually reinforcing: our individual freedom enables us to participate in self-government and by self-government, we protect our individual freedom.  But in both theory and in practice, a liberal society need not be democratic and a democratic society need not be liberal.  Individual freedom can be protected by liberal autocrats and monarchs, as we have seen in 18th century Europe and we now see in contemporary Hong Kong and Singapore.  And a democratic society need not protect individual liberty: democracies have tyrannized minorities and even coerced majorities by mandatory military service and mandatory voting.

The Framers of our Constitution attempted to balance two traditions and sets of values:  from the ancient republics, we inherited a tradition of republican political thought focused on self-government and the virtues of good citizenship; and from English constitutionalism and liberal theorists such as John Locke, we inherited a commitment to protect individual liberty, especially economic liberty.  But our Framers knew that these two sets of values were not always in harmony and each Framer had a different view of how they should be reconciled.  They knew from the study of history that ancient democracies were often not liberal: those robust republics focused on promoting the common good of the political community and citizenship in ways that radically curtailed individual economic, religious, moral, and personal liberty.  At the same time, the Framers saw that many liberal but non-democratic nations in Europe were gradually protecting basic individual liberties of worship, speech, and freedom of contract.

Indeed, even after our Constitution was first approved by the Convention, there was pervasive fear that the new democratic government would be a standing threat to individual liberty.  A vigorous debate emerged about the necessity for a separate and enumerated bill of rights to protect individual liberty from the new democratic republic.  By ratifying the Bill of Rights, we decided to limit democratic self-government in order to protect liberty.  Ever since, we have seen a series of violent political controversies in which the power of democratic majorities has come into conflict with individual liberty.

Weekly Syllabus:

Week One: Is Democracy a Threat to Liberty?

Readings: The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers (Selections).
Tocqueville: Democracy in America (Selections).

Speakers: Antonin Scalia and Ronald Dworkin

Week Two:  Goal of Democracy: Good Citizens or Free Persons?

Readings: Robert Putnam: Bowling Alone.
Charles Fried: Modern Liberty.

Speakers: Charles Fried and Robert Putnam.

Week Three: Political or Individual Liberty?

Readings: Benjamin Constant “The Liberties of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.”
Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”

Speakers: Harvey Mansfield and Ellen Frankel Paul

Weeks Four and Five: A Procedural or Substantive Republic?

Readings: John Rawls: Political Liberalism.
Michael Sandel: Democracy and Its Discontent?

Speakers: Robert Audi and Michael Sandel.

Week Six: Freedom for All Speech or Just Political Speech?

Readings: Ronald Dworkin, “Do We Have a Right to Pornography?”
Alexander Meiklejohn, Political Freedom.

Speakers:  Frederick Schauer and David Cole.

Week Seven:  Is the Personal Political?

Readings: Nancy Rosenblum: “Democratic Sex”.
James Fleming and Linda McClain, “The Right of Privacy In Sandel’s Procedural Republic.”
Robert George: Making Men Moral.

Speakers: Robert George and Nancy Rosenblum.

Week 8:  Economic Democracy or Economic Freedom?

Readings: Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy.
Armen Alchian, Property Rights and Economic Behavior

Speakers: Robert Reich and William Niskanen.

Week 9: Is Democratic Equality a Threat to Liberty?

Readings: Tocqueville: Democracy in America (Selection).
Robert Dahl: Preface to Economic Democracy.

Speakers: Benjamin Barber and Virginia Postrel.

Week 10: Does Democracy Undermine the Rule of Law?

Readings:  Stephen Holmes “Precommitment and the Paradox of Democracy” in Jon Elster, ed. Constitutionalism and Democracy, chap. 7.
F. A. Hayek: “Law, Legislation, and Liberty”

Speakers: Stephen Holmes and Tom Palmer.

4) Other Possible Great Debates for Sophomore Summer.

1) Modern Environmentalism:  Science, Public Policy, and Religion.  One of the most astonishing developments in world history over the past century has been the rise of the environmental movement.  There is no simple way to describe this vast and multifaceted rise of scientific, moral and spiritual concern for nature: it is truly the “Great Awakening” of our times.  Many people today consider nature to be sacred and are outraged by what they see as its desecration by modern industry.  Is environmentalism a new religious movement?  How does it compare with traditional religions?  If there is a religious dimension to environmentalism, what implications might this have for environmental politics and policy?  Is such a quasi-religious movement compatible with the give-and-take compromise of democratic politics?  Are environmentalists inherently hostile to the cost/benefit analysis of modern economics?
2) Globalism and Localism: one world or many villages?  The rising importance of global economic and political institutions has led many to predict a steady decline in national and other parochial loyalties.  Yet many local religious and ethnic identities seem to be growing despite or because of globalization.  At the same time that the European Union is growing wider and deeper, myriad European regionalisms are vigorously emerging.  What is the relation between globalism and localism?  What accounts for the tenacity of local identities?
3) Immigration, American Identity, and Social Solidarity.  Few areas of public policy continue to evoke such visceral emotions as the politics of immigration.  We are a nation of immigrants who have long feared the loss of our identity from the next wave of immigrants.  Should new immigrants be expected to assimilate to our existing American identity?  Or should we expect that a new American identity will evolve with the new arrivals?  What is at stake in our changing American culture?  It has long been thought (or at least hoped) that a society open to new immigrants could also be a society of social solidarity and social equality.  But new research suggests that there may be a deep tension between an open society and social solidarity.  Robert Putnam has discovered compelling evidence that communities with many new immigrants have high levels of social distrust: not only do people in those open communities have fewer multiracial friendships, they even have fewer friends within their own ethnic groups.  The era of greatest social trust and social equality in American history (1930 to 1970) was also the era of least immigration.  But with a falling birthrate among natives in many advanced industrial countries, large-scale immigration and greater social diversity may become increasingly necessary.  How to reconcile such diversity with the values of social solidarity, equality, community engagement, and political participation will be among the great challenges of our future.

(1) From a snapshot of the Dartmouth curriculum in 1822: “There was nothing taught which every student must not study; no course was given which was not prescribed to all” (p. 248). On the history of Dartmouth’s curriculum, see Leon Burr Richardson History of Dartmouth College (Hanover: Dartmouth College Publications, 1932), 2 Vols.  To see how typical Dartmouth was among liberal arts colleges, see Anthony Kronman Education’s End (New Haven: Yale Press, 2007), pp. 37-136.

(2) At Dartmouth, students in the senior year originally read John Locke, Jonathan Edwards, Dugald Stewart, and the Federalist; beginning in 1860 were added Reid, Butler, Lyell, and Guizot.  Elective courses were first offered to upper classmen in 1881.  But as the range of subjects taught widened, students were soon thought to be spreading themselves too thin, leading to a requirement for a major and a minor in 1902.

(3) Great Issues Archives, Box 1 (Rauner Special Collections).  Arthur Wilson, an eminent biographer at Dartmouth and teacher of the Great Issues, described the aims of the course in an article for the American Political Science Review (February 1949): “The Great Issues course can be described as an exercise not only in citizenship but also in general education. It is the only course at Dartmouth after the freshman year in which all the members of a class are brought together in a common intellectual experience.  The overall effect has been to stimulate the process of integrating the student’s knowledge.”

(4) See the brochure of 1964 “The Great Issues Course” which lists all the speakers from 1947 to 1963.