“Some educators approach civics in terms of activism and protests,” notes Professor Mark David Hall, “but protest by itself is not useful in civics.” As Hall notes, “Before students can participate in self-government, they must have knowledge of the basic principles of the American constitutional order.”
The John Dickinson Forum at George Fox University provides students with this crucial foundation of civic knowledge.
The university’s Herbert Hoover professor of politics, Hall, founded the Dickinson Forum five years ago “to encourage discussion and debate” about “America’s founding principles and current events related to those principles”. . A scholar of American political thought and early American Christianity, Hall has authored or co-edited twelve books, including the most recent, “Did America Have a Christian Founding?”
A partner program of the Jack Miller Center, the Forum offers a variety of activities for students, including lectures, book and current affairs discussions, and debates. It has partnered with various institutions in the Pacific Northwest, making its programs available to students at other colleges and universities and to the general public.
The Forum is named after John Dickinson, an important but overlooked American founder. Dickinson was instrumental in writing pro-liberty pamphlets before American independence, was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and was “one of the most thoughtful defenders of liberty in the founding era” . At one time, Delaware’s largest slave owner, Dickinson, influenced by his Quaker upbringing, finally freed his slaves.
The Forum contributes to civic education by bringing in speakers each year to discuss the American founding principles. According to Hall, some speakers also lecture on individuals and movements of later generations that focused on these principles, such as Abraham Lincoln, whose political acumen was heavily influenced by the Declaration of Independence. For example, historian Wilfred M. McClay recently spoke about the role of the Constitution in contemporary civics.
Speakers scheduled for the spring 2022 semester will include Paul Miller of Georgetown University, Jason Ross of Liberty University, Kevin RC Gutzman of Western Connecticut State University, and tentatively Ian Rowe of the Woodson Center/1776 Unites.
Hall says students who attend the Forum don’t get a simply triumphant account of America. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, he and an African-American colleague held a book group on the issue of race and the United States. Discussions focused on documents from the 1619 Project and its critics, as well as articles arguing for and against reparations. Hall and his colleagues have worked to promote “ideas rather than protests,” he says, and they “have worked to include students from all sides” of the current debate. He notes that this particular reading group was so popular that a new group had to be created to accommodate any interested students.
Student reading groups are an important part of the Forum’s programming. Groups of about ten students meet each semester to discuss readings on freedom, equality, and human flourishing in America and around the world. Reading articles from The Economist and other leading periodicals, students debate controversial topics such as the justice of Harvard’s affirmative action policies. Group members are also invited to attend dinners with the speakers that the Forum brings to campus each semester.
Hall believes that one of the main threats to civic education is the magnification of political discourse. He points to the efforts being made in Florida public schools as an encouraging sign that states are beginning to take civics more seriously.
An accomplished student of early American Christianity, Hall also emphasizes the important connection between maintaining a “moral commitment to freedom” and religion, an increasingly overlooked aspect of civic education today. He points to a famous syllogism proposed by James Hudson of the Library of Congress on the relationship between religion and morality: virtue and morality are necessary for free republican government; religion is necessary for virtue and morality; therefore, religion is necessary for republican government.
Hall acknowledges that our circumstances have changed significantly since the founding, when disputes were primarily between competing denominations of Christianity; today, different religions compete for respect in the public square. Nevertheless, he cites the teaching of George Washington that a society is unlikely to function well without a shared morality supported by religious instruction. Although he admits that Washington suggested that certain individuals could be moral without being religious, this realization is highly unlikely for society as a whole.
Promoting the virtues of self-governance, as well as the importance of morality and religion, the John Dickinson Forum seeks to strengthen the foundations of American politics.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics Portal.