Core 102
The Idea of Democracy
Roger Williams University
CAS 220  T, F 2:00-3:20
Spring Semester, 2008
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I can start by introducing myself, I guess. I'm Mike Swanson of the American Studies and History programs in the Feinstein College of Arts and Sciences. My background is cultural history. I took my Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland Ohio, majoring in American Studies. I began here in the American Studies program in 1972 (wow, that's a long time ago).  I've always had an interest in material culture (the study of things people make) as well as intellectual history, and that interest took me into the historic preservation field about twenty years ago. I proposed the first Historic Preservation major here, and I expect to continue teaching in it from time to time, though I returned to my roots here in the College of Arts and Sciences in the fall of 2000
About the Core Program itself:
The Core Program at Roger Williams University centers on three recurring questions in Western thought: "Who am I?" "What can I know?, and "Based on what I know, how should I act?". No single academic experience can provide satisfactory answers to these questions: five of them, working in concert, at least introduce the perspectives, which traditionally have provided tentative answers to these questions. Core 102 uses the disciplines of History and Political Science to look at socio/political answers to the question "Who am I?", the methodology of history and political science to explore "what can I know?", and at the results of behavior based on former answers to these questions to suggest avenues of responsible action in today's society

The course description gives an insight into the content of Core 102. It is more opaque concerning the rationale for a Core Curriculum in the first place. There was a time when the idea of a Core Curriculum would have made no sense: not because the idea seemed ridiculous, but because there was within the western world, at least, a universal agreement concerning what constituted a fit education. Throughout most of the periods we're studying, this was the case. Though the content varied across time, the categories of content proved remarkably stable. It wasn't until a little over a century ago that the idea of "electives" was put forth in academic circles. The culprit was a President of Harvard University.

A decade or two before, the idea of specialties began: not as an undergraduate mode of investigation, but as what one did in graduate school. Here, the first American venture was based on a German model, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was the grand innovator. Now, of course, specialty education is shattering the cohesion of what Thomas Jefferson called the "Academical Village". Perhaps that's a bit too strong: "threatening to shatter" might be a more appropriate turn of phrase.

Core Curricula such as the one at Roger Williams University are responses to this sense of fragmentation. We are participating in an attempt to forge a universal educational experience for all members of the Roger Williams student community, regardless of major, regardless of age, regardless of the majors they take or the schools in which those majors are located. This might be a brilliant exercise: it might also be a noble folly. I have the kind of mind that can hold both of these views simultaneously. It is worth the effort, in my judgment, to bring this diverse group into a common enterprise. I'm planning to have a good time doing it.

Each faculty member of the Core 102 team shapes the general content of the course to his or her individual interests and expertise. My sections will use different materials and in a different sequence, than you'll find in the other sections. At this stage of its development, the Internet is perhaps the most democratic medium ever invented. It is certainly the most potent educator since the invention of moveable type. I make that statement fully recognizing we've a few other means of disseminating information which have been invented since Gutenberg's day: movies, radio, television, to name the big three. Yet none of these allows the level of public access that the Internet does.
My convictions about the potential of the Internet have caused me to emphasize its use in all the courses I teach, including this one. My sections of Core 102 have their own website:
(You may be reading that version of the syllabus even now. 

Notes on each week's reading and discussion activities will be found there. Assignments and links to additional resources will, as well. Bookmark the URL. There will be one page of notes and assignments per week, and these will develop as the semester progresses. All required reading assignments will be posted on the class website. Shortly I will cease distributing a paper version of the syllabus. Those who want to have a paper copy can print the Internet version themselves. A printer friendly copy can be found by clicking the button, top center, of the web version.
The Work Ahead

The Core Readings:
At the center of this course are a series of classic readings related to the idea, “democracy”. The earliest of these documents dates to nearly five centuries B.C.E.  The most recent dates to January 20th, 2004.  Faculty refer to this collection as the “Core Canon”.  (Canon is a word used to describe a collection of representative and authoritative texts on a subject, this case, Democracy.)  Two years ago we began the  posting the “Core Canon” online.  The experiment worked very well, and we are  continuing ths procedure.  The entire cannon can be found at  We won’t be using all the documents in the Core Canon: It would be a good idea to look the list of documents over, however.  The documents are published as Portable Document Format (.pdf) files.  This format  is useful because it maintains formatting regardless of which browser or printer one has.  Pdf. files are read by the Adobe Acrobat Reader.  Most computers come with this software installed.  Should you not have it, you can get it at from Adobe. The download is free.
If you do not have a computer and printer there are free machines available for use in the Learning Commons in the library, and scattered elswhere there, too.
Critical Thinking as an Academic Method.
Critical thinkers are clear as to the purpose at hand and the question at issue. They question information, conclusions, and points of view.  They strive to be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant.  They seek to think beneath the surface, to be logical, and fair.  They apply these skills to their reading and writing as well as to their speaking and listening.
Richard Paul and Linda Elder,  The Foundation for Critical Thinking
You will not have to purchase any other books for this section. Be aware that other teachers do require supplemental readings. If you have purchased a book by mistake, you can return it to the University Bookstore for a refund if you haven't marked it up.  You will need to purchase a large, three-ring, notebook. I also recommend you purchase a three-hole punch, though you can find those for use around the campus if you don't wish to make that particular investment. The central assignment for this course will be to download and annotate the required readings (using highlighters and marginal notes) according to principles I'll explain as the course progresses.  The resulting notebook will be graded, and it will also form the resource for your major paper this semester.
One of the objectives of Core 102 is to introduce college freshmen to the kinds of thinking behaviors which are rewarded in college. These may be quite different from those which are rewarded in other environments–workplaces, for example, and even other educational levels.  To help you acquire these techniques. There are a number of different Critical Thinking techniques. I'll be using the ones developed by the Foundation for Critical Thinking.  Acquiring and consistently practicing these techniques will make a significant difference in your academic success. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has many resources available, and they’re not expensive.  You might find some of them useful to you. There are other aids, too.  If you’re interested, drop by the office and I’ll point some out to you
Your Responsibilities in Core 102


Evaluation and Grades
I don't like to do it but it comes with the territory. One of my goals for this course is to help you become more articulate and persuasive in presenting your ideas at the same time you are learning to frame questions, access information and form judgments and solutions. Consequently I'm going to have you do as much writing for me as I can find time to evaluate. Your Mid-term Examination will be take-home, and parts of your final examination will be take-home, as well. In terms of proportions of your grade, I expect to use the following:
Classroom Practices and Procedures
The primary objective of this course is to trace the development of a number of ideas associated with the central idea, Democracy. Historians understand that ideas don't just "pop up" out of nowhere, fully developed and isolated from what happened before.  Ideas have antecedents and ideas have consequences.

Consequently, we can create "genealogies" of ideas and thereby understand them better.  To do this we're going to begin by identifying the principal ideas and assertions in three important documents from the middle of the 20th Century:
1.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
2.President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (1961)
3.Letter from Birmingham Jail (The Reverend Martin L. King) (1963)
We'll spend approximately the first month of the course coming to understand the ideas in these documents thoroughly and in great detail.  The remainder of the course will trace these ideas back into the western tradition from which they arose, and forward to our own day, to see what relevance they may have for us or how they're being used as the inspiration of and justification for ideas and actions in recent years.


Generally my classes are pretty informal.  I talk, you talk, and out of the conversation comes knowledge of a sort.  We are not going to construct a linear narrative this semester.  I am aiming to provide you with a richer, more complex, and more sophisticated understanding of The Democratic Idea.  Much of your final understanding will result from what you piece together yourself.  Some of you will be much more comfortable with this approach than others will be, at least initially.  If you are a person who requires a lot of structure you're going to have to switch gears and trust the system I'm using.  If this is difficult or impossible for you, there are other sections of Core 102 which are organized differently.  Enrolments are very full, but you may be able to find someone who would trade sections with you.
Attendance Policy

I do take attendance on a regular basis, using a sign-in sheet which circulates around the room. Your prepared work for the day is your passport to the assignment sheet.  To receive full credit for attendance you must prepare before class.  If you come, but come unprepared, you will receive partial credit, because you'll still be able to benefit from the work of your peers. You are responsible for making sure you sign in on the sheet. I try to be as liberal in excusing absences as I can be. Excuses for illness, family emergency, and the like are freely given, as long as I am notified by email. 


Despite any absence, you are still required to keep up with what's going on. If you must be absent you can demonstrate you were prepared either by dropping off the assigned reading in my office or by coming to see me during my office hours as soon as you are able to do so.

Use the website to keep informed.

The class meets twice a week, so each unexcused absence is the equivalent of a half week's work missed. More than three un-excused absences will have a negative impact upon your grade. More than five un-excused absences and I'll suggest you withdraw from the course
Undergraduate Pledge to Academic Integrity

We, the undergraduate students of Roger Williams University, commit ourselves to academic integrity. We promise to pursue the highest ideals of academic life, to challenge ourselves with the most rigorous standards, to be honest in any academic endeavor, to conduct ourselves responsibly and honorably, and to assist one another as we live and work together in mutual support

For a number of years now, this pledge has been the centerpiece of the convocation which begins the fall term.  It is worthwhile taking a minute or two to reflect on what it says.  The twin supports of Academic Life are collaboration and independence of thought.  In this class, there is no curve. In the largest sense, you're not in competition with each other, and to the degree that you can assist each other in learning you'll win nothing but praise from me.  Yet it is equally important that each student exercise his/her own independent judgment, and have confidence in his/her own mind.  Plagiarism defeats the whole purpose of the enterprise, and the University will not tolerate this particular form of intellectual theft.  For the university statement on plagiarism, and for a general exposition of its Academic Standards, consult the University Website.
You will learn appropriate techniques for incorporating ideas from others with your own in writing classes and elsewhere.  When in doubt about something you've written, don't hesitate to show it to me or any other professor and ask for an opinion.  The Roger Williams University Writing Center is very helpful to those who make the effort to use it.  It has also posted a number of helpful documents online.

Michael R. H. Swanson, Ph. D.
Office:  CAS 110, ext. 3230-
Hours:  M, F, 1:00-2:00,  W, 2:00-3:00
T, 10:00-11:00