About our program

Reception for Constitution Day Speaker Gordon Wood

What is the Program in American Values and Institutions?

Does American federalism promote capitalism? Would the United States have been better off without the Electoral College? What exactly does it mean to create a society that guarantees the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Why has American society so frequently failed to live up to its highest ideals?  These are just some of the questions that animate our program.

Our courses, lectures, and workshops further understanding of how American values evolved in response to particular historical circumstances. We also explore how political ideals and beliefs about human flourishing shaped the origins and development of American political, economic and social institutions. Finally, we encourage students, faculty and the general public to subject American ideals and institutions to critical analysis.

We believe that the study of American ideas and institutions is not only interesting, but also an important means of preparing students to exercise the rights enshrined in America’s founding documents. We are especially interested in protecting free speech and fostering dialogue across ideological lines, as the ability to analyze opposing viewpoints is essential to both academic inquiry and democratic citizenship.

In recognition of our commitment to promoting free inquiry and preparing students for democratic citizenship, AVI has been named an “Oasis of Excellence” by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

How can undergraduates get involved?

* Take Political Science 206

* Join the Visions of Freedom Living Learning Community

* Enroll in the Visions of Freedom House Course (open to all students)

* Check out our recommended courses

* Attend events, including our annual Constitution Day Lecture

* Join political theory faculty for dinner once a semester

* Discuss AVI events on our blog

* Email nah7@duke.edu to get on our list-serve

What are American values?

American values include political ideals—such as equality, liberty and popular rule—that most Americans support, while not necessarily agreeing on their meaning. American values also include beliefs about what is necessary for human flourishing; for example, Benjamin Franklin’s belief that industriousness is the key to individual happiness and social utility, Henry David Thoreau’s claim that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” and Eleanor Roosevelt’s belief that America should stand at the head of a united nations to eliminate war and human suffering.

What is the relationship between American values and political theory more broadly?

Many of our programs—including the American Experience Focus Program, and our annual Constitution Day Lecture—focus specifically on American values. We also organize and co-sponsor numerous events related to classical, modern and contemporary political theory and ethics; AVI is a regular co-sponsor of the Political Theory Workshop and the Graduate Conference in Political Theory. Given that American political thought has shaped and been shaped by non-American thinkers like Cicero, John Locke, Mary Astell, Frederick Nietzsche and Mahatma Gandhi, we believe that a broad knowledge of political philosophy is central to understanding the meaning and significance of American ideals.

What was the Gerst Program?

The Gerst Program was the predecessor to the Program in American Values and Institutions. It aimed at fostering an understanding of the central importance of freedom for democratic government, moral responsibility, and economic and cultural life. Click here to learn more about the history of American Values and Institutions.