Educating Students for Freedom
October 1, 2008
J. Rufus Fears
There has been a great deal of concern about what is called "civic illiteracy," the fact that not only students but even adults don't know the most basic principles of our government. Various groups, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, have conducted surveys which indicate that, even in some of the best colleges and universities, students know less about the Constitution and about American history when they graduate than when they entered. Even those who score best seldom make above a 50 on a multiple-choice test.
This would have disturbed the Founders of our country deeply. They believed that a free nation and its citizens must have a "frequent recurrence to fundamental principles," as the Virginia Declaration of Rights says. And that means that, time and time again, we should go back and learn what our guiding principles are, as embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Long ago, I decided the best thing for me to do was not to sit around and complain but rather to do the one small thing I can do: to teach. And long before there was this current concern about civic illiteracy, two very distinguished, public-spirited, and farsighted Oklahomans, G.T. and Libby Blankenship, endowed at the University of Oklahoma a unique chair to educate students for freedom.
The Blankenships have long been concerned about how to maintain and enhance our American ideal of freedom. They have been concerned with understanding how America has taken a different course than so many other countries that have had revolutions, whether in Russia, or China, or Latin America, or France. They wanted to set up a chair that would educate our students for freedom. They wanted the focus to be on undergraduate teaching and on bringing the results of that undergraduate teaching (and the scholarship that backed it up) to a broader audience through public lectures.
It has been my honor since 1993 to hold the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. And I would say that it is one endowed chair that has fulfilled the aims of its founders. Every fall semester I teach a course called "Freedom in Greece" and in the spring I teach "Freedom in Rome." These two courses are always closed out at 311 students; I don't use any assistants, and I grade all the papers myself.
In the fall, we focus on the lessons of Athenian democracy for America today. We look at what lessons the Founders of our country learned from the Athenian democracy and how they applied them. Because the Founders believed that Greece and Rome were the great examples for our new republic-both good values to learn and mistakes to be avoided-that's precisely what we study in that course. We focus on the history that the Founders learned about Greece and the history they learned about Rome-and the books they read about Greece and the books they read about Rome-as they went about preparing our Constitution. And then we carry on to how these lessons apply to us today, because the Founders believed that the lessons of Greece and Rome were eternal; human nature never changes, so these lessons would always work.
In addition to these large lecture courses (in the fall on Greece and in the spring on Rome), I also teach seminars to our seniors. The one in the fall is always on the United States Constitution and its lessons for us today. We start with simply understanding what is in the Constitution, what is in the Declaration, what is in the Bill of Rights, and then we turn to the books the Founders read to enable them to fashion these remarkable documents.
There is no constitution in the world that is still giving a nation liberty under law more than 200 years later, the way our constitution is. So I try to convey to our students the wisdom that our Founders had. We focus on the founding, then the time of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, but we move right on up to today and the issues that face us and try to apply the wisdom of the Founders to issues today.
In the spring, we focus on what George Washington believed to be absolutely essential to maintaining liberty: religion and morality. We read the Great Books-works like Plato's Apology, the Gospel of Mark, the Book of Exodus. We read Greek plays by Sophocles; we read Machiavelli; we read modern works like 1984 and Henry David Thoreau's Walden. All this with the end of understanding the interconnection between freedom, religion, and morality.
Often in these large lecture courses and in the senior seminars, I find that my best students aren't classics majors, but rather are in the business school, or engineering, or pre-med. That's my real goal with these courses, to educate the ordinary student to think about these great issues.
I have been very pleased to hold this chair and to be a part of the Blankenships' vision of teaching the principles of freedom to undergraduates at the University of Oklahoma and to a broader audience. Five times the students have voted me the best faculty member; I've also been named the most inspiring professor. Once a month during the academic year I go up to Oklahoma City and teach the Great Books course to senior citizens, and I also teach it at the Norman campus. Based on those courses, I was named teacher of the year by the National Association for Continuing Education.
Moreover, my courses are now available from The Teaching Company in audio and DVD formats. These have had a very wide impact. Every day brings e-mails from across the country and around the world-from places like Israel, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan-from people who are learning about freedom in these lecture courses.
All this education for freedom springs from the Blankenship Chair. Without the Blankenship Chair, I would have had none of these opportunities. In addition, the support of President David Boren has been absolutely crucial. He and the Blankenships share the belief that we must educate our young people for freedom and for the awesome responsibility of self-government.
J. Rufus Fears (Ph.D., Harvard University) is the David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma, where he holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty. He also serves as the Dr. David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for Freedom Enhancement at OCPA.