What is the Program in American Values and Institutions?
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.
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. What is the relationship between American federalism and American 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?
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; for example, 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, 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.
How can undergraduates get involved?
The best pathways into the program are our Visions of Freedom and American Experience Focus programs, and our signature course, “POLSCI 206 American Values, Institutions and Culture.” Students are welcome to attend our lectures and workshops, including our annual Constitution Day Lecture. Past speakers include founding editor of The Onion Scott Dikkers, the political philosopher Charles Taylor, former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, and the historian Gordon Wood. We also organize several dinners for undergraduates and political theory faculty each year, and offer a limited number of undergraduate research assistantships. Finally, we 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 hosts events that are open to the whole student body.
Contact Nora Hanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org to get on our undergraduate email list.
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.