Two programs at the University of Notre Dame seek to instill in undergraduates a knowledge of and respect for civic education and institutions that support a free people.
The Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies and The Tocqueville Program for the Inquiry Into Religion and Public Life are directed by Associate Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, a political scientist with a strong background in American constitutionalism and religious liberty. His well-received book, “God and the Founders: Madison, Washington, and Jefferson,” explores the views of key American Founders on the relationship between religion and government.
The Constitutional Studies Minor gives students the opportunity to “engage in learning and discussion about constitutionalism, including church-state issues and First Amendment rights,” Muñoz says. The courses are “neither liberal nor conservative in a narrow political sense” but instead “help students appreciate our political heritage by introducing them to the great debates in American political and constitutional history.”
Students study texts such as “The Federalist Papers,” the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and great speeches in American history, along with important topics such as the necessary moral virtues required to secure the conditions of freedom. Courses for the Spring 2021 semester include an exploration of presidents ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama and a study of constitutional controversies revolving around race.
Soren Grefenstette, a former student who now works for the Constitutional Studies Program, calls it “a home for rigorous discussion on the most important social, cultural, and constitutional debates of our time. You would be hard-pressed to find programs more dedicated to cultivating citizenship, civic engagement, and civil debate for students than the Tocqueville and Constitutional Studies programs.”
The Constitutional Studies Program features links to important resources such as a web portal that explores how thinkers across time have understood natural law and its place in constitutionalism. It also provides links to scholarly quarterlies such as American Political Thought.
Students minoring in Constitutional Studies are invited to participate in a sister program, The Tocqueville Program, which “seeks to nurture informed conversation, learning and scholarship about the fundamental principles of a decent and just political regime with a particular focus on religious liberty.” Tocqueville fellows meet for weekend seminars and private discussions with notable visiting speakers, and they hold regular lunches with Notre Dame faculty, among other planned events and activities.
Muñoz’s favorite memory during his time overseeing the Tocqueville Program was when he hosted Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. Speaking to students on a diverse range of topics – “from why (one student thought) the Justice had erred in a recent Equal Protection Clause case to whether Notre Dame would have beat Nebraska in football that year,” Muñoz recalls – Thomas blew past his scheduled time, making the law school faculty wait for a planned lunch discussion. By regularly interacting with politicians and other public officials, fellows can witness how these leaders conduct themselves and see their jobs.
“If by talking to a congresswoman or senator, we inspire a Notre Dame student to later run for office for noble reasons,” Muñoz comments, “we have contributed to the political common good. And if I have done my job, that former student will be knowledgeable about our constitutional principles, having learned them in my class.”
A unique aspect of the Tocqueville Program, Muñoz says, is that “a third of our students are business students,” a fact he sees as “extraordinarily important,” since it is imperative that “future leaders of industry understand the principles of constitutional government” and “better appreciate free speech in a principled manner.”
Muñoz saw firsthand American culture’s problems with freedom of speech when he faced pressure from faculty and administrators to disinvite libertarian thinker Charles Murray, whose speech at Middlebury College was infamously shouted down by campus protestors. But he also saw promise. Murray’s Notre Dame campus visit went well; protestors remained outside the venue where Murray spoke; and Murray was treated respectfully, even though he was peppered with difficult questions.
Honoring free inquiry is one of the many republican virtues that both the Constitutional Studies and Tocqueville programs are working to inculcate in the next generation of citizens.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.