As Americans deal with the political fallout from the 2020 election, Arizona State University associate professor Adam Seagrave says that “extreme political polarization” and the “breakdown of productive civil discourse” continue to be defining features of our times.
Fortunately, The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL) at ASU presents an opportunity for young students interested in reinvigorating our diminished national unity and habits of civic friendship.
Offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in civic and economic thought and leadership, SCETL offers students the chance to study “history’s greatest thinkers” in tandem with “the guiding principles of America’s founders and inspirational leaders.” As SCETL founding director Paul Carrese writes, “The core spirit of these endeavors is the nexus of great intellectual works with leadership and statesmanship for 21st century America and a globalized world.”
Seagrave explains that “all of our courses focus on primary texts and utilize the Socratic discussion method.” The curriculum emphasizes both the Great Books and American political thought – setting SCETL apart from similar programs that typically favor one theme over the other.
Pointing out the neglect of civic education compared with the popularity of STEM fields, Seagrave argues that “the U.S. has fallen critically behind in supporting the prerequisites for our internal political health.”
He continues: “Self-governing citizens need to be educated to properly exercise the freedom they enjoy and bring it to fruition in the attainment of human happiness for themselves and their political community.”
This mission is particularly vital to America, because, as Seagrave notes, “Civic education doesn’t matter in a dictatorship; subjects only need to obey.”
New for this school year is a graduate program headed by James Madison scholar Colleen Sheehan, who came to SCETL after decades of teaching at Villanova University. Sheehan says that the program will prepare students who “can be a part of the solution to move forward in a country and nation that promotes civic understanding and friendship.”
Students are required to intern in the offices of public officials such as U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema or Arizona’s attorney general Mark Brnovich.
Seagrave notes that SCETL has “experienced significant, continuous enrollment growth in our courses every semester” since the school’s inception in 2017. Enrollment stands currently at 484 students, with 59 majors, 39 minors, and 7 graduate students – numbers that he says should continue to grow, especially in light of increased enrollment in lower-level courses. Ultimately, the goal is to grow to 200 majors over the next several years.
SECTL’s full events calendar includes the Civic Discourse Project, which runs every school year and features scholars and intellectuals on Left and Right discussing pressing issues in a civil manner. Past events have brought together Robert Putnam and Yascha Mounk to discuss citizenship and Cornel West and Robert George to debate free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses and in American society.
The 2020-2021 series covers the timely topics of race and justice and has already featured Danielle Allen, William B. Allen, Randall Kennedy, and Peter Myers. On November 16, Lucas Morel will discuss how Abraham Lincoln dealt with the growth of slavery in antebellum America.
Other events include the Pandemic Dialogues – an online program that features live webinars, a student reading group, and a podcast series on great works of literature that deal with infectious plagues of the past. The Signature Events lecture series features annual addresses on Constitution Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.
SCETL also offers platforms that teach the importance of self-government through civic participation. Its CivEd app, available for both Apple and Android phones, offers free public lectures, including the Civic Discourse Project, the civic literacy curriculum, podcasts and multimedia resources, and other research projects.
Created in partnership with the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, where Seagrave taught prior to coming to SCETL, Starting Points is an online journal that features articles and conversations about noted scholars on American principles and practices.
All these resources support SCETL’s mission: to foster a thoughtful civic patriotism among students and motivate them to work on behalf of the American project. Regardless of the results, as Seagrave noted before the November election, “we will have much work to do to rebuild our political culture.”