The freshman seminar course came about via a series of grants as several Duke scholars developed the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies and the program in American Values and Institutions, says political science professor Michael A. Gillespie, the director of both programs.
Gillespie says one of the things students need to learn is how to approach serious writers and thinkers, and his course looks at philosophical foundations. Readings are from all across the spectrum, starting with Martin Luther and including Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Rousseau, Kant, and Mill. They help students
get a firm understanding of the basic dynamics of freedom: Is freedom doing what we want or doing what is rational?
Gillespie uses Jack London’s The Call of the Wild to instill the idea that deeper reading offers greater insights. “Many of the students have read the book and think it is about a dog, but it’s really about calling forth the primordial beast of man,” he says. “They quickly realize that they’ve read something without having the faintest idea what was going on.” He also sometimes uses Moby Dick to make the same point. (Hint: It’s not really about a whale.)
It’s a writing-intensive class,sostudentsare asked to write three papers, no more than five pages long, in the standard
rhetorical form to teach them how to make an argument. One topic: Is coercion necessary to securing liberty? Students edit each other’s papers and are graded on editing as well as writing. “Criticizing others makes them better writers,” Gillespie says.
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Teaching freshmen how to write and argue effectively is key, Gillespie says, but the course also helps get them out of their own heads. “At first the class attracted more conservative students who thought it would be about libertarianism; my goal was to get them to read something other than Ayn Rand. With more liberal students, I want to encourage them to take conservative thinkers more seriously. I want them to see that the contemporary debates are not just about the here and now, but that these are fundamental human problems that have been going on for thousands of years.”