Ashbrook Scholar Built "Habits of Excellence" and Changed His Life

December 24, 2020

At age 25, Sam left his home in the Central Valley of California and made a new home in Ashland, Ohio. He entered the Ashbrook Scholar program, a rigorous undergraduate program at Ashland University. Working 25 or more hours a week in the Ashland-based Americarb factory—even during summers and vacations—he earned money to defray tuition costs, using breaks to read his political philosophy books. He kept at it, knowing the education he was getting as an Ashbrook Scholar far surpassed what he had experienced in state-sponsored institutions in California.

The first of those institutions was the county jail.

Sam was a good student in high school, but after graduation he fell in with a gang whose members must defend the group against all rivals. By age 21 he’d amassed a series of citations for fights and faced felony assault charges. While in jail, he was put to school by imprisoned gang leaders, who expected weekly 500-word essays on gang pride that they would read for proof of loyalty. “I liked the structure of the gang’s codes and rules,” Sam said. “But it was really all indoctrination.”

After eight months, he had not yet pled guilty. Ushered into an empty courtroom, Sam faced a direct question from the judge: “Are you a member of a gang?” At first Sam refused to answer; then, after the judge told the court recorder to stop typing, Sam admitted he was. The judge “insisted I take the plea and change my life.” Hesitating, Sam looked at the pictures of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison the judge had hung behind his bench. “I caught sight of Washington’s stern face. He looked really upset with me, and I felt ashamed. I was born in Mexico yet made it to the US with my Mom when I was five. After my Mom married my US-born stepfather, we both gained US citizenship. My parents had raised me well, taking me to church every week. Even after I went to jail my Mom kept praying for me.” Glancing at Washington again, Sam realized, “I’d been given a chance at liberty and I’d wasted it. I decided, ‘I’m straightening out.’”

While on probation, Sam took the advice of the District Attorney who had prosecuted him: he enrolled in the two-year College of the Sequoias. He took courses with Stephen Tootle, an historian who also teaches in Ashbrook’s Master of Arts in American History and Government program. Tootle invited Ashbrook Professor Peter Schramm to visit and lead his class in a discussion of Federalist 1. Reading Hamilton’s essay, Sam was struck that Hamilton compares “government based on reflection and choice to the kind of society I’d been in between high school and jail: that based on accident and force.”

After the class, as he watched classmates excitedly query Schramm on four-year colleges and careers, Sam tried to formulate his own question. “When Dr. Schramm finally looked at me, I just said, ‘How can I become smart like you?’”

Schramm answered, “Build habits of excellence. If you have a bad habit, replace it with a good habit. Eventually, you’ll see the results.”

Since jail, Sam had steadily cut ties to bad habits and unhelpful acquaintances. He’d set a goal to get his BA degree before writing to the Judge to ask that the felony conviction be expunged. Now Sam hoped to study in the Ashbrook Scholar program. Tootle worked with Schramm to get Sam through the challenging interview and become accepted, only to begin a harder task. He’d engage with other highly motivated Scholars in intense seminar discussions of primary texts in political philosophy. He’d write essays requiring him to make his own reasoned judgments about the words and actions of statesmen.

He focused his senior thesis on the arguments Lincoln made as he ran for the Senate and the presidency. Sam wrote that Lincoln changed the mind of Americans about an injustice—slavery—that many had accepted as an inescapable reality. “He pulled out of Americans the moral truths they already knew in their hearts,” Sam says. Noting that in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln would suggest that the suffering of the Civil War was a penalty exacted for the injustice of slavery, Sam points out a parallel to the lesson he learned when a judge demanded he plead guilty.

Sam’s thesis won one of five Charles Parton Awards announced at an Ashbrook reception for Scholar graduates in May 2015. Like other Scholar grads, Sam also received books Peter Schramm carefully chose for him. He’s already worked through three chapters of Harry Jaffa’s dense historical-philosophical study of Lincoln’s presidency, A New Birth of Freedom.

After graduation, Sam accepted a full-time job at Americarb, where he hopes to earn enough money to undertake law school. He recounts a challenge given him by the judge who sentenced him: “I want to see you in a different suit on this side of the room.” Sam’s goal is a judgeship in a superior court. He wants to interpret the law in the light of principles found in the writings of Lincoln and the American Founders.

Unlike the Ashbrook Scholar program, law school gives practical training in the workings of an imperfect system. But the challenge of pushing the law to align more nearly with principle intrigues Sam. Pursuing this goal, Sam will continue to build habits of excellence.