April is probably my toughest month, and yet is also full of great pleasure. The end of the semester meant that I had to wrap up my Lincoln seminar. But this proved easier than I thought because the students led a fine discussion on the Second Inaugural, and I listened more than talked. The satisfying conversation covered everything from slavery, to war, to knowing God’s will (or not), to the possibility of both redemption and restoration for the Union. Then the papers needed to be read and graded. Most were good, some verged on great.
The twenty-seven Ashbrook graduates were defending their Statesmanship Theses during the whole month. Each thesis is written under the supervision of a committee of three faculty, with one acting as the main reader and guide. The writing process takes about a year, and the effort put into it by the students is serious. The character and scope of their work is revealed more fully to the public when they have to defend the thesis in front of the committee and anyone else who would like to attend, usually twenty or so people. Imagine the atmosphere in the room: fear and trepidation on the part of the student, yet proper pride in the serious work he or she has been steeped in for so long. The ensuing conversations are a delight and fully reveal the qualities of the students.
I recently realized that this is only the second time I will have seen their parents. The first was during the interview for the Ashbrook program when their child was still in high school. After four years, although the parents recognize their own child—for his or her character hasn’t changed—they are also surprised by the thoughtful, well spoken, and accomplished man or woman in front of them. They note the perfect equality with which he confronts the committee and the seriousness of the conversation that is led by their once childish child. You can feel their pride seeping out through their exhalations. Some parents are explicit in saying that now they begin to think that this experience in higher education—in something high-minded and beautiful—may have been worth the price and the sacrifice.
These conversations—covering topics from Henry Clay’s anti-slavery understanding of the Union, to the foreign policy of George Washington between 1793 and 1796, to the disputation between Jefferson and Adams on the meaning of natural aristocracy, to the jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas—are fine examples of what happens when a student looks at something that interests him deeply, sorts through it during an extended period of time, and then applies a lot of elbow grease in order to return to our world and talk about it. It reveals much about the connection between the effort to understand and the ultimate enjoyment of a complex issue, one that before this noble attempt gave off bright but only elusive glints of meaning.
I do understand that students vary in the way they reveal both their knowledge of the subject and their love of it. Sure. Seeing that diversity among human beings is part of the pleasure of the month. Some are wonderful writers and only fair talkers, and some are the reverse. Some are able to come into their own when they punch a keyboard, and some discover at the defense the satisfaction of being able to talk about something in a natural way, as if they had been dwelling in the subject forever and are now just coming up for enough air to reveal something of said subject—and their love—to the rest of the dull world.
At one Statesmanship Thesis defense, I saw a student talk about Jefferson in a way that I found completely engaging. I caught myself wondering what it was that made this so appealing. I noted that it seemed to me that the student was talking as one who now inhabited Jefferson’s mind. He seemed wholly at home with the subject, answering questions as I imagined Jefferson would answer, somehow from the inside of the thing. The student was no longer talking about Jefferson’s views on slavery. He was talking—all listeners seemed to note—as Jefferson might have talked when confronted with the particular question. A student sitting next to me (from another department) whispered, “He really is into Jefferson, isn’t he?” That nailed it for me. The student defending his thesis was revealing Jefferson’s heart and mind for the rest of us. It was a kind of revelation. And it glowed.
In another defense, I saw a student struggle to both understand and defend Henry Clay. I say struggled not because the student was not at home with the subject or the man, but rather because he sensed the enormity of the issue and the task—Clay understood that in principle it was a free country and yet he couldn’t find a clean way out of the practical problem of slavery. The student seemed angry with himself—just as Clay might have felt—for not being able to either hold the wolf by the ears or let him go. Then I remembered why we call these senior papers, “Statesmanship Theses.” April is a good month.
Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University.