What kind of institutions do you study?

We study political, legal, economic, and cultural institutions, including the presidency, the Supreme Court, the common law system, the mass media, the National Parks System, agricultural cooperatives, corporations and public schools. Using methodologies from different disciplines, we explore how such institutions emerged, how they have shaped American history, and how they have evolved over time. Particular attention is paid to the American Founding and to the ways in which institutions have facilitated and also constrained efforts by immigrants, African Americans and other marginalized groups to achieve full citizenship.

What are “American values?”

American values include political ideals such as equality and liberty—ideals 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, or Henry David Thoreau’s claim that “in wildness is the salvation of the world,” or Eleanor Roosevelt’s belief that America should stand at the head of a united nations to eliminate war and human suffering.
AVI seeks to foster understanding of the sometimes-competing ideas and aspirations that have played an important role in American society and public life. We are especially interested in examining how values have shaped institutions, such as the way in which ideas about motherhood influenced the development of the welfare state, or the way in which beliefs about the importance of wilderness influenced environmental regulations. This entails exploring how art, film, literature, and religion have both shaped American values and institutions, and also—as in the case of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, and HBO’s The Wire—subjected them to critical examination.

How can undergraduates get involved?

The best pathways into the program are our Visions of Freedom and American Experience Focus programs, and our gateway course, “American Values, Institutions and Cultures (PS 206).” Students are also welcome to attend the numerous conferences, film screenings and lectures by distinguished scholars and public figures organized by AVI. Finally, we offer a limited number of undergraduate research assistantships and support the Visions of Freedom Living Learning Community.  In addition to providing a living opportunity for students who are passionate about politics, philosophy and economics, the Living Learning Community regularly organizes events that are open to the whole student body.  Click here for more info about the Visions of Freedom Living Learning Community.

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