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Treating America’s Amnesia

Robert Jackson recently interviewed the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, David Bobb, who discusses how classical education helps promote leadership; what he considers the most crucial issues of our day; and how to get students beyond test preparation.

Q: How did you get into this line of work? 

A: I have to credit my parents and a teacher. My parents always included me in dinner conversations about things of the day—and things of yesteryear. Dinner table talks were sacrosanct. They talked to me, from the time I was very little, as though I just should join in. Then I had a wonderful teacher, who was also my varsity soccer coach. He had a great way of acting as a Socratic gadfly—especially in studying history, civics, and the broader world of human action. I learned “viewpoint diversity” from that teacher. I tended to be the kid who was a little too confident in his own opinions, and that teacher forced me to think, he pushed me: “Can you justify that, or is it a bumper-sticker slogan?”

Q: Can you give us a little more of the story?

A: I studied the liberal arts at Hillsdale College, where I was drawn to politics, history, philosophy, and the classics. I thought after college that I might end up on Capitol Hill, but there were too many questions I wanted to pursue. So, I entered a Ph.D. program in political philosophy at Boston College, where I studied under real mentors, like Pierre Manent, who challenged me and made me want to be a better teacher. I returned to my alma mater to teach and build programs like the Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence, which trains teachers in using primary sources in the classroom. Then, I went off to D.C. to start Hillsdale’s Kirby Center—and inoculate students against “Potomac Fever.” It was illuminating for the students: whether answering phones in a congressional office and trying to understand the nature of a democracy; or, taking a media internship with a newspaper, magazine, or TV station and considering the fundamental questions of a free and open society. We were seriously addressing the ideals of statesmanship. In D.C., we often hear that the good or desirable is a mere utopian ideal. Insiders claim we can only talk about that which is achievable. To be sure, these are prudential matters. But, too often politics becomes mere cleverness. That’s the problem: the pursuit of prudence (a virtue!) degenerates into displays of cleverness. I think one of the main purposes of a liberal arts education is to guard against that degenerate impulse.

Q: So, how does classical education promote a statesman-like understanding of politics?

A: By studying history, with past statesmen (men and women) who have met the temptation of power and have fought for the common good, you start to realize how rare is such virtue. You start to think about what it takes.

Q: What are the most pressing issues in training teachers of American history and this generation of students?

A: The threat to teaching [history and civics] is today’s presentism, where teachers and students run pell-mell into activism before thinking about what they are going to do and what they are going to stand for, without drawing upon those long-learned lessons from history and the study of human nature. It’s important for the young to be involved in the world around them, but first they need to think about these things deeply—and that’s really hard. With tens of thousands of teachers across the country, the Bill of Rights Institute spurs a conversation concerning the relationship between history and civics in America. Those governing artifacts of our distant past are the most important things to inform our present. The Constitution is not a dead letter. You have its principles, which must continue to animate our society. When you use those as touchstones, you can better understand how to be a citizen today.

“Civic education” can sound so anemic, but it’s not some bulletin-board character education program. That frustrates me, because it makes it merely some academic exercise, a check-the-box activity or test preparation—and the students figure that out pretty quickly. They mouth back, “OK, we’re supposed to be tolerant, respectful, etc.” Though they learn to recite the definitions of such things, they quickly move on: “Who cares?” But, encountering history’s life-and-death struggles turns civics into a real-life, spell-binding drama. Just as we pay attention to the results of the recent “Nation’s Report Card,” I wish that we could measure our students’ hearts, what they care about—which is perhaps the most important part of education. We may not be able to quantify the things they love, but I think we can say with confidence that their hearts are not healthy. As citizens of this republic, they are not inspired by their own history and the legacy they have received as Americans. We’re just not succeeding in that area, and we need to do a better job.

Q: How do teachers bring American history to life?

A: Along with our amnesia for American history, we have forgotten the most important thing about teaching history: it is story! One of the most compelling things a teacher can do is say, “Think back to those pivotal decisions in an individual’s life and imagine you’re transported to that place. Would you be ready to make a decision like that?” If you’re going to tell a story, you have to know the context, being true to the way it played out, but you also have to be attuned to the emotional elements.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Frederick Douglas, lately. Nobody told it better than he did, with three amazing autobiographies, each one a fuller account of his former enslavement. If you go back to some of those moments in his early life, it’s shocking. Imagine, for example, that you’ve been sent away to a person called ‘the Slave-Breaker,’ and that man’s sole job is to break your will. As Douglas describes it, every day you wake up and have to decide, as you tend oxen and receive the blows of the Slave-Breaker, whether you are merely an animal, like those oxen. What inner resources do you draw upon to sustain your spirit at such times? How do keep from giving up?

Adolescents are often grappling with difficult matters, but few have had to deal with circumstances of that order. When you can go to stories like that and ask students, “What are you wrestling with in your life?”, it’s worth every minute of conversation.

There is a lot of hurt among teenagers in America. We recently hosted student programs in three different locales: Midland (TX), Pittsburgh, and Colorado Springs. In each program, students wanted to talk about suicide. In each of those cities, students testified that they knew someone directly, or knew someone who knew someone who had taken his or her own life. This is a cross section, kids from all different walks of life. There are a lot of people in our country who are despairing, and I think strong teachers are needed. We are not counselors, but we can show students that this stuff we are studying is fully human and completely relevant. People have been going through very difficult circumstances throughout recorded history, so let’s look at the struggles and find our commonalities—and learn from our past.

“Civic education,” which can sound so anemic, is not some bulletin-board character education program. That frustrates me, because it makes it merely some academic exercise, a check-the-box activity—and the students figure that out pretty quickly. They mouth back, “OK, we’re supposed to be tolerant, respectful, etc.” Though they learn to recite the definitions of such things, they quickly move on: “who cares?”

Just as we pay attention to the results of the recent “Nation’s Report Card” [NAEP, April], showing no academic growth to speak of, I wish that we could measure our students’ hearts, what they care about—which is perhaps the most important part of education. There may not be a way to quantify the things they love, but I think we can say with confidence that, as citizens of this republic, their hearts are not healthy. They are not inspired by their own history and the legacy they have received as Americans. We’re just not succeeding in that area, and we need to do a better job.

Q: How do you measure the success of BRI and its mission of equipping teachers and engaging American students?

A: We do three things: curricular resources for teachers; professional development for teachers; and direct outreach to students, namely high and middle schoolers. The only way to measure academic gains is by doing a double-blind study, which we have done for one of our textbooks—a full length course entitled Documents of Freedom, an online book produced by a group of professors, with Harvey Mansfield as the senior scholar of record. It’s a textbook on civics, economics, and history. We worked with Tufts University to produce the double-blind study of teachers and students using the textbook, and it revealed statistically significant gains in two areas: students’ knowledge of the subject area and students’ affinity for constitutional principles.

We work with one out of four teachers in this area. When we asked 25,000 teachers about their professional learning experience, going through a program with BRI, they respond with a Net Promoter Score of more than 9 out of 10.

I’m also really pleased that this crosses the ideological spectrum. Most of these teachers are in public district schools, both districts and charters. They are coming at it from a variety of different political perspectives, but they realize that the quality of our materials transcends ideology. And, that’s important, as we are making an argument for freedom and opportunity, the founders’ principles. But, we’re also saying that we’re having a conversation. So, if we profess to believe in “viewpoint diversity,” we’d better live it.

Q: What is your favorite scene from the founding period?

A: Imagine you’re trying to figure out, 10 years after American independence, how to get the states together, given that they are dissatisfied with the former arrangement [Articles of Confederation]. A young man, James Madison, had a plan. But, not everyone shared his plan, so he had to figure out how to get a consensus. He had studied history and human nature, and he knew that the kind of power structure we originally set up was too weak. So, the trick then, was how to put something in that is stronger, but not so strong that it tends to autocracy.

So, Madison got to George Washington, who was the leading man in the country, “a man of continental character,” as the phrase was then used. Today it seems kind of easy to be a national celebrity: you just get on TV and everyone knows you. Back then there was no such thing. For George Washington to be known by everyone was quite an accomplishment.

What Madison needed was to convene all the important delegates, and to do that he needed Washington to show up. Annapolis [an earlier convention] had been tried and failed. “What if we tried for May 1787 and we get Washington there?” So, Madison starts a letter-writing campaign to Washington, who had told the Society of Cincinnati that he couldn’t be there in May. That’s a problem, because once Washington says something, he’s not inclined to reverse himself. But, Madison knows, “If I can get others to come, then maybe Washington will show up.” Like when you send an invitation with a list of who’s coming and you place an asterisk next to the guest speaker who has been invited (but not yet accepted).

Well, Madison makes the journey, and Washington reluctantly agrees, and they both show up at the appointed time (mid-May), along with a couple of other Philadelphians, in what we now call Independence Hall. And, though the history books leave off, I can imagine Madison and Washington standing there, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance. If this meeting is another failure, we’ll probably just muddle along with the Article of Confederation, and we won’t become the United States of America under the Constitution of 1787. Washington could have turned on his heel and left, saying “I don’t wait around for anyone. I am a national hero, after all.” But, for whatever reason, he stuck with Madison, and it took another 11 days before they could gather a quorum from the respective states.

Those kind of moments, what it took behind the scenes, are incredibly dramatic—all in anticipation of the formal work of drafting a constitution. It took the next four months, in the long hot summer of Philadelphia, to write that founding document. But, everything hung on that fateful meeting between Madison and Washington.

During the councils of the Constitutional Congress, Washington would write to one of his friends: “The happiness of this country depends much upon the deliberations of the federal Convention which is now sitting. It, however, can only lay the foundation—the community at large must raise the edifice.” That “raising of the edifice” is the work of BRI—and the work of Great Hearts, as well.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job? And, what’s the best part of your job?

A: The hardest part is getting young people to think about the long-term. We can devise products and construct programs that will appeal to a young person’s desire to achieve at a high level—to score a 5 on the AP history test; win a debate tournament; become an eagle scout—and I love to see those ambitions materialize. The hard thing is to get them to think about those deeper qualities of their inner selves, and the virtues of which Aristotle spoke. It’s hard to get them to think beyond the next hurdle, let alone the next 20 minutes.

Public school teachers have a difficult time attending to that long-term, given all of the mandates and policies foisted on them from the federal and state governments. That further complicates the task of educating for the long haul.

It’s a human thing, right? While we recognize we’re aiming for high academic achievement, we’re trying to move beyond mere intellectual accomplishment to those personal characteristics of utmost concern—what David Brooks refers to as “eulogy virtues,” as opposed to “resume virtues.”

The best part of my job is having a teacher like Andrea Martin, who works with young people in Alabama. She sent us a picture of her students, who were beaming after having won a BRI current events quiz. She said, “These are young people who could be locked up in jail, but instead they are in my classroom getting another chance.” Teachers in difficult situations are doing something with a passion and skill that motivates us to want to do our jobs better.

Or, when you meet a young man coming to our week-long Constitutional Academy, who says, “In one week here I’ve learned more about the founders that presented them in a positive light, than I did in an entire year of AP U.S. History.” That’s a hard thing, but it’s also the thing that I enjoy most. We’re making a difference: not by putting the founders on a pedestal to rely upon their authority, but rather showing the challenges that they, along with Frederick Douglas, the suffragettes, civil rights leaders, and freedom fighters throughout our history have faced. We are asking students, “Do you want to be like one of those people? Do you want your life to be of real consequence?”

We are looking to the past—its lessons, achievements, and exemplars—to draw inspiration and a vision for the future. We must strive to understand our historical moment if we are to act wisely and for the common good.

History always begins in the middle of things. It doesn’t matter where you choose to start the story, there is always something essential that came before, some prior context that is assumed.

Like a river, time’s restless force pushes ever forward, relentlessly. But its beginnings lie far back, eventually extending far beyond what we can see, fading into the mists of time at the edges of lands beyond our knowing.

Typically reserved for college students, a thesis is an academic rite of passage for high school seniors at Great Hearts Academies. As the culminating experience of their studies, students work to master the rigor of rhetoric, demonstrating their critical capacities.

The room is decorated simply, with pictures of presidents, congressional leaders, and Supreme Court justices on the walls. Twenty-five students are sitting around a set of tables forming a rectangle, debating Article III of the Constitution and Federalist Paper No. 78.

Robert Jackson recently interviewed the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, David Bobb, who discusses how classical education helps promote leadership; what he considers the most crucial issues of our day; and how to get students beyond test preparation.

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