I sat in on Scott Himsel’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Characters freshman tutorial recently, and plopped down in the middle of a lively debate. To observe was almost enjoyable as taking part.
I’m a sucker for the Founding Fathers and became intrigued with this class over the summer when Cameron McDougal ’12 said it was the most influential class he took at Wabash. After a few run-ins with Himsel and discussions about the class, he invited me to attend.
In this class, students are asked to discuss and debate a multitude of topics, first through the words of the Founding Fathers, and then by connecting those words to current events. To paraphrase Himsel, “the historical point and the modern parallel.”
Himsel often asks students to argue in favor of perspectives they disagree with. It teaches them, Himsel says, “to walk around the entirety of the problem” McDougal took the class thinking he could rely on the words of Thomas Jefferson. More often than not, Himsel had him arguing from the position of Alexander Hamilton.
I enjoyed watching these guys think, reason, and react. At times they’d jot down notes or point a finger—that telltale response that informs the world, “I have a thought worth sharing.”
You could tell these guys were enjoying the process, at least as much as the thumb-worn, dog-eared, underlined and highlighted copies of “Something That Will Surprise the World” could attest.
Himsel poked and prodded his students through the discussion with his own questions: “Are you sure?” “Could you take that a step further?” He went so far as to pull out a dollar bill to make a point. He wasn’t stifling or correcting, but giving these gentlemen the freedom to walk around this problem.
Watching people think; to see the wheels turning – to see them reach for a book, thumb through a section, and look for just the right passage in response – is fun. Himsel brings the class to conclusion by relating the day’s questions to current court cases. Words from another century easily can be lost in translation, but these words still carry weight, even when borrowed by sitting Supreme Court justices.
After class, several students came forward and asked nuanced questions—they were not only engaged, but were developing a critical eye.
As this mid-term election season comes to a conclusion tomorrow, we’ve seen plenty of politicians cloak themselves in the language of the Founding Fathers. It’s reassuring to see this group of students grasping the importance of perspective in the ability to discern persuasion from political speak.