Graduating Ashbrook Scholars Receive Statesmanship Thesis Awards

December 24, 2020

At a reception honoring graduating Ashbrook Scholars on May 8, Professor Peter Schramm and other faculty reminded Scholars that their four years of intense study had been an interval of purposeful leisure. Even as they had tested themselves in the unusually rigorous program, they had enjoyed a privilege open to few other undergraduates in the country. Only 5% of colleges require an undergraduate thesis; very few college students begin, as Ashbrook Scholars do, planning the thesis in their junior year, meeting frequently with faculty advisors as they research and write. No other college program requires students to orally defend their thesis work. These experiences had built knowledge, skills, and confidence and taught intellectual practices that would strengthen and refresh the Scholars throughout their lives.

Ashbrook Scholars’ theses were exceptionally strong this year, Schramm said. Five Scholars were awarded Charles Parton Memorial Awards for their work. Each Scholar’s thesis grew from a question of personal importance and drew insightful connections between their studies of history, political thought, and American principles.

John Case wrote about King Solomon of the Old Testament, who perceptively prayed for wisdom and was granted it. Yet after using his wisdom to guide Israel to greatness, Solomon departs from faith in his later years. Case wondered: “Is wisdom a gift? Or was it the fault of wisdom that Solomon lost his faith?” Case’s thesis involved a careful study of the Biblical meaning of wisdom. Jackie Horn studied three of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, looking at how a jealous regard for one’s own power creates tensions not only among jostling leaders but also between the rulers and the ruled in direct democracies.

Sam Mariscal wondered why Lincoln, who before his presidency made little impact on American politics, was able to decisively resolve the sectional crisis over slavery after becoming president. He studied the Lincoln-Douglass debates to understand how Lincoln explained core American principles to his fellow-citizens, preparing them to preserve a Union that would be worth saving. Zac Hoffman was interested in abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had been treated brutally while a slave yet revered American principles. Hoffman found in Douglass’s view of citizenship an outlook that might clarify today’s discussion of race relations. Douglass saw citizenship as not merely a set of rights to be claimed but also a set of obligations: to support ourselves through our own labor and to uphold shared moral principles.

September Long, who studied ballet for years before college, examined American attitudes toward this art. Wondering why so few Americans appreciate ballet, Long examined the argument of 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville. He had predicted that American democracy would produce more artists and artworks than aristocratic regimes produced, but fewer masterpieces, unless immigrant artists brought the US their creative expertise. Long both agreed and disagreed with Tocqueville, who, she said, failed to foresee that Americans would find new, simpler forms of artistic transcendence. Yet she found he correctly predicted the importance of foreign artists’ contributions. Russian émigré George Ballanchine, Long showed, raised the profile of ballet in America by discovering how to fuse the form with American themes.

The highest award given at the reception underscores the program’s commitment to educating principled leaders for America’s future. Faculty gave Brent Rossman the James Madison Award for the Outstanding Senior Ashbrook Scholar, acknowledging his academic and moral leadership and constructive contribution to fellow students’ growth. Rossman wrote on the relationship between reason and rhetoric in the speech of statesmen. He drew his thesis title, “Patience and the Reign of Witches,” from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a political ally worried about Federalist-backed laws that effectively limited free speech. Jefferson counseled against a rash move to dissolve the Constitutional union so recently secured among the states: “A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles.” Persuasive arguments based in rational principles, Jefferson believed, would cause the people to reject the oppressive laws. “Rossman chose a fitting topic, given his own calm and thoughtful example to fellow students,” Professor Schramm said.