Ashbrook's Part in the Freedom Business
March 26, 2021
Since 1997, Dr. Jeffrey Sikkenga has taught hundreds of teachers, undergraduates, and high school students in Ashbrook’s programs. In 2020, he was chosen as Ashbrook’s Executive Director, shortly after this candid conversation with students and staff about Ashbrook’s purpose and goals. It remains an excellent illustration of how Ashbrook’s programs work to strengthen constitutional self-government for students, teachers, and citizens.
What, in your mind, is the Ashbrook Center’s purpose?
We’re in the freedom business. That’s what Dr. Peter Schramm told me in my interview 23 years ago, and it’s just as true today. We aim to preserve the freedom we’ve been given by the laws of nature and nature’s God, by our inheritance from the Founding. We don’t do this through politics or policy, although we’re friends and allies with folks who do that. No amount of policy and politics will work if you forget the principles. Politics and policy are downstream from culture. And education profoundly shapes culture. We’re an educational center, and our part in the freedom business is teaching it.
How does the Ashbrook Center teach freedom?
We’ve been thinking through that question for a very long time. It’s important to understand that all of our programs are part of a larger whole that is built upon two fundamental principles. The first principle is that the human mind is free. Jefferson talks about this in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free.”
Unfortunately, this principle is not embraced by all higher education or even K-12 education. It’s no longer common sense, as it used to be. What does this principle mean, that the human mind is free? It means that the mind is not bound, as many would have us believe, by race, class, or gender. You hear that all the time—if you’re this race or you’re this class or you’re this gender, you have to think this certain way and your mind cannot transcend that. At Ashbrook, we know that’s not true—the great minds throughout history give us insight into permanent truths. I can read Frederick Douglass and understand things I wouldn’t have understood otherwise. It doesn’t matter that he’s a 19th-century black man who was a slave. Me, a 20th century white guy, can read Frederick Douglass and say, “he’s right—there’s something profound here.”
That’s what we mean by “the human mind is free.” We can pursue the truth together, and we do it without apology and without any hesitation that it is possible. When you start with this foundational principle, education becomes the cultivation of human freedom. It’s not indoctrination, and it’s also not information. It’s about getting deeper into understanding fundamental truths, permanent questions. The mind is capable of that. We believe it at Ashbrook. We live it. We practice it. And it’s a rare thing.
We can pursue the truth together, and we do it without apology and without any hesitation that it is possible. When you start with this foundational principle, education becomes the cultivation of human freedom.
What’s Ashbrook’s second fundamental principle?
The second fundamental principle is that, in its essence, America is a free country. Look to the Declaration of Independence, a document that Thomas Jefferson said was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
America’s Founding is unique in the history of the world because it declared that we are one people not because we share the same blood or soil, but because we share certain fundamental principles. That makes it possible for immigrants to come here and be just as American as those who’ve been here for five generations. As Peter Schramm said, you can be “born American but in the wrong place.”
What American principles does Ashbrook teach?
Federalist No. 1 says that America is different from every other regime because our way of doing politics and civic life is not based on accident and force, it’s based on reflection and choice. The Declaration references the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” When we say that America is free, it’s in the sense that we recognize certain universal principles and put them into practice first. It does not mean that they are specifically American principles. They are universal principles, principles for all human beings. We just happen to be fortunate enough to put them into practice first and to live according to that practice.
Everyone is familiar with the famous line from the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Here are the principles that we all unite around, and yet are constantly debating about. There’s a word here that cues us in to something important about these principles: “self-evident.” Something is self-evident when it proves itself. But you have to be enlightened to it. For nearly all of human history the truth of the equality of man went unrecognized. People weren’t enlightened to it until the American Founding.
That provides grounds for hope because it means that anyone can learn these principles of freedom and put them into practice. But it’s also fearful because you can forget them. People who used to know them can
abandon them. There’s no necessity that they pass from one generation to the next. Every generation has to relearn those principles, or America won’t stay free.
How can we keep from abandoning the principles of the Founding?
Ashbrook has a certain view of the trajectory of American history. You can see that trajectory in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Lincoln comes to Gettysburg five months after the battle, and the stench of death is still in the air. He has to explain, what’s this all for? What does it mean? What are we fighting for? In this moment of crisis, Lincoln immediately turns back to the Declaration of Independence, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
It is Ashbrook’s view that the trajectory of American history is toward deeper understanding and practice of the principles of the Declaration of Independence through our Constitution and in our public life. Every moment of crisis in America’s history involves forgetting or turning our back on the principles of the Founding, or a dispute over the principles of the Founding.
Lincoln held this view, and it is part of the beauty of the Gettysburg Address. It’s poetry that moves the soul, but it’s poetry that teaches, too. It teaches you the story of the American mind that had been fractured in the years before the Civil War, where you had people like John C. Calhoun saying that the Founding was based on a self-evident lie. We see similar arguments playing out in the great debates of the Great Depression and the New Deal. We see it in the great debates in the Civil Rights Movement.
We build our programs around this understanding of the trajectory of American history. We have a volume, The American Idea,structured around these moments in our history. It’s how we structure the Ashbrook Academy. It’s how we structure our American politics intro class for freshman Ashbrook Scholars. It’s how we structure our teacher programs. It is not the current, fashionable understanding of American history—of which the 1619 project is a prime example—that American history is defined by oppression. We reject that. Our programs are built on a notion that American history is a struggle to live up to the principles of freedom proclaimed in the Founding.
What is unique about Ashbrook’s way of teaching this understanding of America?
Ashbrook is the only organization in the country that combines this understanding of American history with a conversational, seminar, discover-it-for-yourself way of teaching. This active learning approach is critical because we believe that the human mind is free. All people desire to know, but they don’t want to be told. They want to discover it for themselves.
The worst thing you can do for someone who thinks America is evil and oppressive is to meet them with counter ideological indoctrination. I’ve seen a lot of programs that try to do that. It doesn’t work. You end up preaching to the choir, or they just shout back at you. We need to go where people are and have a conversation with them.
Our work at Ashbrook is part of this struggle to live up to the Founding principles, not of accident and force, but of reflection and choice.
Why is freedom worth preserving?
It’s worth preserving in part because it’s useful. Freedom works. Freedom creates prosperity. Freedom creates security. Freedom creates comfort. There is no question that’s true. But that is not actually the best defense of freedom. As we know in today’s society, you can have a very prosperous country and have a lot of people turn away from freedom.
The best defense of freedom is that it is noble and good. The greatness of freedom comes about when a person governs themselves. If people don’t understand that, no matter how useful freedom is, they’ll turn away from it. If they think something else is good—if they think socialism is good—in the midst of prosperity created by capitalism, they will turn away from it. They have to understand the goodness of freedom and the nobility of freedom.
What are your future plans for the Ashbrook Center?
We’ve grown into a national organization already. It’s not surprising anymore to have Ashbrook Scholars from across the country. Teacher programs are across the country. But we have to continue to grow and scale nationally. There is great hunger for what we do. When you talk to people in a serious way, they’ll respond in a serious way. Our programs are not just lesson plans for certain techniques to do in your classrooms. We’ve been told by a lot of people, “Don’t do it that way. You’ll scare people away.” That’s not true. It attracts people. Being serious, being high-minded, being excellent attracts people. It doesn’t repel them. We know that, and we have to live that way. That is key to our part of the freedom business.