Where Young Minds Are Free to Learn: A Conversation with Students in the Hilda E. Bretzlaff Ashbrook Academy

August 27, 2021

Where Young Minds Are Free to Learn: A Conversation with Students in the Hilda E. Bretzlaff Ashbrook Academy

It’s no secret that America is in crisis. The moral fabric that once held us together as a nation appears to be coming apart at the seams. Our culture and media are saturated with negative partisanship, vilification of political rivals, and disdain for America’s principles and history. In a desperate attempt to score political points and force ideological agendas on future generations of Americans, our schools have sadly become a battleground. Rather than focusing their full attention on learning, young people must decide where their loyalties lie and what beliefs are safe to express in class.

Here at Ashbrook, young minds are free to learn. High school students who gathered together with us this summer from around the country for the sixth annual Hilda E. Bretzlaff Ashbrook Academy are proof. The Academy participants came from diverse backgrounds—over 14 states, different backgrounds, and a variety of political and religious beliefs. Yet each came to Ashbrook because they share an interest in history. They soon found that they have so much more in common, more than they could have imagined.

Once You Have a Taste of Freedom, You Can’t Let It Go

A few days into the Academy, we sat down with a small group of students to ask about their experience. They were eager to share.

All of the participants expressed surprise about the way they were treated by professors. “They’re not treating us like kids,” said Joshua from Texas. Lanie, from Pennsylvania, remarked that “the professors believe that nothing is too complicated for us, and they’re talking to us like equals.”

Treating students as equals is a sincere and deliberate part of the Ashbrook way of teaching and learning, grounded in the truth, as Thomas Jefferson put it, that “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Each student is treated as a free and equal participant in learning. The professor is merely older, with more experience and knowledge. Students are easily drawn in because it is unlike anything they’ve experienced in a classroom before. It surprises and delights them.

“It’s not a burden for the professors to teach us,” said Joshua. “It’s something that they want to do, and it makes me want to learn—it’s not a burden for me to learn.” Once this spark is kindled, heads and hearts are fully engaged. Learning becomes an adventure that students want to participate in. Another student, Sophie from Tennessee, said that she enjoyed her Ashbrook experience “more than any other classroom-based learning,” and, echoing Joshua, said that “leading up to this point, education has always been a chore.”

Engaging students and bringing them along with learning rather than lecturing at them accomplishes the most essential purpose of American education—instilling the habits of self-government. Instead of relying on a teacher or textbook to give them the answers, students learn to think critically and discover the answers for themselves. Alyssa, a student from Pennsylvania, told us about her experience.  “I honestly feel a lot smarter, because I’m coming to the conclusions on my own,” she said. “I’m not being told what to think . . . I’ve enjoyed learning again.”

The effectiveness of Ashbrook’s way of teaching and learning boils down to a maxim written thousands of years ago by Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know.” Once a student’s desire to know is awakened, they are well on their way to becoming well-rounded human beings and citizens. Yet modern education all too often fails to awaken that desire, treating students merely as spectators, not asking them to do more. That’s why we add to Aristotle’s maxim, “but they don’t want to be told.” As a free nation, America depends upon free people, free people with free minds. This sort of thinking is new to students, and like any first experience, it is very exciting and has a deep and abiding effect.

“It only takes a taste to know you want more,” said Lanie. Another student chimed in, “Once you have a taste of freedom, you can’t let it go.”

Understanding American History in a New Light

The Ashbrook way of teaching and learning is simple and powerful. Students read primary documents from our history and discuss them. Instead of reading textbook summaries, Ashbrook students learn directly from the historical figures who lived and wrote our history–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and more.

This was a welcome departure from the way that most of the students had been learning history. Joshua said that he had never “had anything close to a class like this. I’ve noticed a lot of textbooks have different interpretations. But we look at the documents, exactly what they say, analyze them, and then we talk about it. It’s just a blast.”

With the primary documents that tell America’s true story readily available, it’s a fair question to wonder why schools rely so heavily on textbooks instead. Lanie speculated that “adults everywhere else might be afraid of handing a document to a young person—a document that might be jarring or grotesque or complicated. But here, there isn’t that type of barrier; the professors believe that nothing is too complicated for us.” All the students we talked with agreed that this approach gave them a truer view of America. Sophie explained that she had formed a whole new perspective not just on American history, but all of human history. “All of the people we’re learning about are flawed human beings who have done great, monumental, awe-inspiring things,” she said. “But they’ve also done these awful, horrible, things that make them human. It’s awesome that we’re seeing both sides of it.”

Many programs and textbooks take one of two tacks: they either tear our forefathers down as hopelessly depraved, or they build them up into flawless heroes. As mentioned by Sophia, Ashbrook does neither but instead uses documents to present America’s historical figures as they were: human beings who sometimes failed but also accomplished significant and even world-changing things. Joshua noted that seeing this ambiguity made some things more clear for him. By seeing the humanity of those who came before, the next generation of Americans can realize that freedom and self-government is no pipe dream. It’s a reality that can be attained, so long as we adhere to certain fundamental principles.

Students said that even the primary sources they had previously read in high school took on new meaning when reading them with Ashbrook. Asked about her favorite document from the Academy, Alyssa chose the Declaration of Independence. “It’s kind of funny, because I’ve read it before so many times, and it’s usually so straightforward,” she said. “But with Ashbrook, on our first day we focused on ‘all men are created equal’ and a week’s worth of curriculum was based on that handful of words. Now I understand it in a new light. And I understand the rest of American history in a new light because of it.”

What Unites Us?

Growing up in an increasingly divided America can be a difficult and confusing experience for young people. Joshua said that the tension has felt so great for him that he thought “If I ever told somebody that I may not be a Democrat or I may not be a Republican, they would actually try to harm me.” The media, he said, seems to be telling Americans that if we disagree on politics, we have to hate each other, “Like we can’t be next to each other. We have to go to blows.”

Another student, Sophie, said that this tension was palpable when she first arrived on campus. “There have been at least five people who have told me stuff, and they looked at me so scared when we were first meeting each other.” Yet, they were soon talking, sharing their beliefs, and arguing in and out of the classroom, “in such a respectful and friendly way . . . We’re teaching each other about what we believe in. It’s so amazing and beautiful. And American.”

“We’re trying to bridge gaps,” said Lanie, “not to merge everything into one, but to create bridges so we can have open dialogues instead of just shutting a person down. Being here and getting to learn how to do that is one of the most valuable takeaways of the Academy.” For students in the Academy, discussing the important questions of America’s history and principles with each other becomes second nature. The conversation spills out of the classroom and into the dorms where it’s common to find students talking about topics from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to current events. A bystander would be surprised by the ease with which these 16 to 18-year-olds tackle some of the most controversial issues of the day. Alyssa put her finger on one of the reasons why such a simple experience seems to be so difficult these days. “We’re told that politics and our political beliefs should be at a higher standing than friendship,” she said. “But for us, we could honestly disagree about something and then play cards together five minutes later. It’s really great because it gives us the opportunity to discuss things and bond with each other. And I think it’s something that most Americans just can’t do.”

Asked what most unites them at the end of the day, Lanie enthusiastically responded, “We all have American minds!”

We Can Change the Whole Country

Nearing the end of the conversation, tears of gratitude flowed as the students reflected on their transformation in the Academy. One student said, “When this week ends, it’s going to be so sad because we’ve gotten the best taste of what education should be.”

Spencer, a junior from Indiana, took hope in the fact that they were all going home changed, equipped with the ability to pass their experience on. “If we take the new ways of thinking we got from this Academy, and we affect two people, that’s exponential growth,” he said. “We can change the whole country.”

That indeed is the hope of Ashbrook and of our friends and donors who make possible programs like the Hilda E. Bretzlaff Ashbrook Academy. As President Calvin Coolidge said, “American citizenship is a high estate. He who holds it is the peer of kings.” It is up to us to help young people realize and gratefully accept the high calling they have as American citizens.

Your support makes a difference in the lives of these young people. “It’s the best possible feeling in the world to know that someone out there wants me to have this experience,” as Lanie said. “Someone out there wants me to learn how to think, not what to think. Someone out there wants me to meet these amazing people. Someone out there wants me to walk away from this a different person than I was when I walked into it.”