A Lively Discussion on Democracy in America

December 24, 2020

It takes a special skill and dedication to lead an Ashbrook seminar. Professor Jeff Sikkenga manages the task exceptionally well, say students in his freshman seminar, “Democracy in America.”

Ashbrook Professor Jeff Sikkenga
Ashbrook Professor Jeff Sikkenga

A group of 35 Ashbrook Scholars gather in the central meeting space of the Ashbrook Center for the twice-weekly meeting. It’s a required course for freshmen—an initiation into their four years of thinking about American government—and the tight-knit, competitive group prefer to experience it together. (“They would not let us teach the class in small sections,” Ashbrook Scholar Program Director Peter Schramm explains. “They want to know what everyone else is thinking.”) Professor Sikkenga often opens with a trivia question that prompts five or six quick responses from around the room, stirring the spirit of friendly rivalry. Then he opens up the text for the day. It might be a portion of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Or it might be the more familiar words of the American Constitution.

Sikkenga uses both classic political theorists and the American Founders themselves to help students arrive at their own understanding of the natural rights of human beings and citizens, and to probe how the Constitutional design of American government supports those rights. An expert in Constitutional law, who has served as a senior fellow in the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, Sikkenga could give densely learned lectures on these subjects. But he does not. He guides students in dissecting the text, sentence by sentence. As ideas become clear, he relates them to contemporary issues, throwing out questions for the class to discuss.

“He keeps the entire class engaged and participating,” says freshman Joshua Frey. In the large group, “discussions can get heated very quickly,” says Delaney Jones—especially since Sikkenga allows students to jump in without raising a hand and waiting to be recognized. “It may seem chaotic, but that is the nature of the class; we learn from one another and let ideas flow from one person to the next,” Jones says. If tempers flare, Sikkenga quickly deflates tension with humor, she added.

Frey recalls an exciting discussion “about whether flag burning should be illegal.” Sikkenga prompted students to “think carefully about the meaning of freedom of speech, by applying the principle to a type of speech that they found offensive.”

Hayden Eighinger finds the class has helped him to fully understand a fundamental part of our American heritage. “Around mid-terms, Professor Sikkenga told us, ‘One of the primary goals of this class is for you to be able to sit down with someone else—grandma, dad, your sister—and explain the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, word-for-word.’ At this time, I opened up my Declaration/Constitution pamphlet and began to read the Declaration. I found that I was, in fact, able to say what every word meant.” This is a “feat which few Americans can claim,” Hayden noted.

Sikkenga has spent considerable time outside of the classroom writing articles and editing collections on classic political theory and American political thought. Particularly interested in the relationship between politics and religion, he is currently writing a book on John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. But he loves the time he spends teaching. “Not many people get to spend their careers having conversations about the most important questions in life”—such as “What is justice? What is the best kind of society? What makes someone a great statesman?” In this conversation, he says, he approaches the great texts just as his students do: “The thinkers we read, the statesmen we study—they are our teachers.”