In my Honors seminar in History, a class drawn from many majors (with few History majors), we are studying the Modern American Presidency. Using the teaching tools compiled by Kathryn Cramer Brownell at the Miller Center at UVA, students will be reading primary and secondary sources to consider the evolution of the institution over time, particularly with reference to evolving media and its institutions. See the syllabus here: ***Spring 2018 HIST HON 2225 Syllabus.
To introduce the presidency, I’m having students read Part I of Forrest Macdonald’s book, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History. The goal is to consider the experiences and intellectual underpinnings of the framer’s ideas about executive power and possible institutions of the executive as the went into the Constitutional Convention. Ultimately, the class will consider the tensions between safety and liberty, republicanism, and democracy.
Beginning with the nature of the governors vs. the governed, I want to bring up the concepts of oligarchy and democracy. Who is better endowed to rule? To introduce this question, I am embedding the dilemma in the method of instruction.
Thus, I’ve modified the underlying question: Who is better to introduce content to students? The oligarch, in this case, me; or the people, in this case, the students. I have many degrees and I’m adept at reading scholarly sources. I’ve taken notes on the chapters assigned. In class, I will distribute my notes, and in groups the people/students will add their thoughts. They will present their additions, clarifications, and corrections to my notes and suggest the key take away points of the reading. For each chapter, the student body will vote on who won that round: the oligarch or the people. Did the oligarch provide the best version of content, or did the addition of the people’s thoughts and clarifications change the outcome significantly enough to constitute a “win”?
While the ultimate goal is for students to consider the ideas of the legal commentators, political philosophers, historians, and the experience of colonial governments and the Revolution, I want them also to keep the larger questions in focus—and to introduce a little competition without (I hope) undermining my own authority. We shall see….