Nation & World

Boston Public School teachers go back to class

5 min read

What do ancient Rome and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I have to do with the development of the United States government? A lot, according to Harvard government professor Daniel Carpenter.

On a warm July day, when many teachers were off on their summer breaks, a dozen instructors from the Boston Public Schools were back in class. In a seminar room in Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, they sat as students studying the historic connections under Carpenter’s expert guidance.

The men and women were part of a two-day event at Harvard, the first of its kind, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that aims to enhance the teaching of American history and culture. Under the direction of Carpenter and Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies (CAPS), the grant, awarded last July, funded the Harvard University Initiative on the American Republic, an effort to underscore the importance of republicanism and its impact on the development of American political institutions. The initiative includes a visiting faculty position and student fellowships, as well as the annual summer program.

For Carpenter, the history of republicanism (the philosophy of the rule of the people, or popular sovereignty) and its direct relationship to the development of the American political system have been poorly integrated into the broader academic curriculum. He created the summer seminar to help bridge that gap.

Using examples of other republics dating back hundreds and even thousands of years, Carpenter encouraged the teachers to explore the fundamental principles behind the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, with an eye toward the earlier models that inspired them.

“The founders had this fascination with Roman models and English models, and the idea here is to say, ‘What were the models of a good society that informed the making of America?’” said Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government.

Carpenter, who also serves as the director of CAPS, based the program on his current class for Harvard undergraduates titled “The Theory and Practice of Republican Government.” With the help of a variety of texts by renowned political philosophers such as Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay, and Harvard’s own Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, he examined the myriad concepts they championed: separation of powers — the importance of an executive veto, and the notion of popular liberty — that were referenced and incorporated into American political institutions.

Carpenter said the class is about investigating the intersection of political history and political theory.

“We are basically going to ask teachers to consider what sort of norms, mores, and virtues would be required in modern society to be stable and prosper and to flourish, not just in the economic sense but also in the political sense. … What did the founding generation see in these [early] republics that they wanted to emulate,” he said. “The idea is to understand the early American republic, which includes our own institutions in light of the debate and questions that the founders wrestled with, questions which have persisted for millennia.”

Making those early connections more evident for the teachers was the first step. What followed during the two-day seminar were lengthy discussions on how participants could convey those connections to their students.

“The depth of historical information and analysis in terms of the earlier forms of republican governments gives me a much stronger grounding in political theory,” said Andrea Doremus Cuetara, who teaches history to 11th- and 12th-graders at The Academy of Public Service in Dorchester. She also welcomed the chance to discuss the concepts with her peers. “This [seminar] helps me be a lot more assured and creative in figuring out ways to bring these important ideas to my students.”

Some of the history and civics teachers, who already use selections of Carpenter’s suggested texts in their classrooms, offered the idea of acting out scenes from the early republics, with their students assuming the different roles of those in authority.

Tom Mills Jr., a retired information technology consultant, who called his second career in teaching “the best time of my life,” suggested coordinating the Roman history curriculum with English classes, and the study of texts like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

During a discussion about Montesquieu’s notion of freedom, the talk veered sharply to the present day and the challenges faced by many of the participant’s inner-city students, including the threat from gangs and violence.

Their sense of freedom, said Pat Bernard, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Public Schools, is curtailed out of fear for their safety. “They don’t have the freedom to sit outside their house,” she said, “or to go to the corner.”

“If society or government isn’t providing these neighborhoods with enough protection, if that’s true, it’s very much an echo of what you are seeing in the Declaration of Independence, where American colonists expressed their concerns not only about taxation, but also about the lack of institutions and the lack of protection from the Crown,” responded Carpenter, who believes that making students aware of people’s struggles throughout history and the systems that were created as a result of their efforts is paramount.

“If students and their teachers realize there were people in oppressed situations who collectively acted, those are really, really important lessons. Sometimes these brief revolutionary moments that we teach powerfully shape the long-run status quo that follows them,” he added.