Creating Thoughtful Citizens at Ashbrook
“We’re in the freedom business.” That’s what Ashbrook Center Executive Director Jeffrey Sikkenga was memorably told more than two decades ago, when he first asked about the organization’s mission.
Located at Ashland University in central Ohio, Ashbrook aims “to restore and strengthen the capacities of the American people for constitutional self-government” by teaching the principles of equality and liberty as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Two ideas undergird what Ashbrook does: that the human mind is free—that race, class, or sex don’t determine what someone thinks—and that American history should be viewed as an “ongoing struggle to live up to the noble principles of the Founding.”
The fundamental question that animated the nation’s Founding, Sikkenga says, is just as relevant today: Can “human beings govern themselves,” or must “they always be ruled by some prince, or potentate, or administrator?”
The Founders understood, Sikkenga notes, that “While free institutions are essential . . . such institutions will fail if not sustained by truly free human beings and citizens.” Though human beings have the innate capacity for self-government, they need to be taught “the right knowledge, habits, and judgment.” They need, in other words, “the right education.”
American civics education today falls far short of this measure. Sikkenga contends that, at best, modern education methods force students “to race through the material without really learning it.” At worst, students are taught to view America’s past as a sordid tale of “ugliness and oppression” that will naturally cause them to disdain and disparage their country.
In contrast, Ashbrook looks to create “informed patriots” by teaching the meaning of America and what it represents “in the long history of the world.” Named after former congressman John M. Ashbrook, who represented Ohio’s 17th congressional district for 21 years, Ashbrook opened in 1983, with a personal dedication from President Ronald Reagan.
Through in-person and online formats, Ashbrook provides free programs centered around original documents in a seminar-style setting.
Especially important is the Ashbrook Scholar Program, a four-year, merit-based scholarship for undergraduate political science and history majors intended to challenge students and “bring out the best qualities of their character.” Scholars take a rigorous course load grounded in the great texts of Western civilization, participate in conversations with statesmen such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and write and present a senior statesmanship thesis on a topic connected with their studies. (I was privileged to be part of the program from 2005 to 2009.)
Ashbrook offers teachers a full spectrum of resources based on the “principles of freedom and equality” that are “essential to being an American.” By the end of the year, Sikkenga expects Ashbrook to have conducted over 150 webinars and programs in school districts around the country.
Additionally, Ashbrook curates TeachingAmericanHistory.org, the largest collection of online primary source documents in existence. Sikkenga says that the site is on track for 4 million visits this year alone.
Ashbrook’s Core Curriculum series features 12 compact volumes (more are coming), each with approximately 25 primary-source documents, with introductions and questions to help spur classroom discussion.
Another opportunity for teachers is the Master of Arts in American History and Government, a two-track, graduate-level degree program that focuses on a broad overview of American history based on primary-source texts. Ashbrook reports that teachers from all 50 states have completed this program since it began in 2005.
Overall, Ashbrook has tens of thousands of teachers in its networks across the country and reaches millions of students every year.
For citizens, Ashbrook offers its 50 Core American Documents booklet that contains key American texts such as the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
As former Ashbrook Executive Director Peter W. Schramm once wrote, Americans are not simply born; they “must be trained—they must be made.”
Through study of the writings and speeches of American statesman and our nation’s history, Ashbrook hopes to assist in that making—enabling students, teachers, and citizens to acquire the knowledge and virtues required for thoughtful citizenship.