The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas

Ethics and Civic Education Project

In cooperation with UTeach Liberal Arts and with grants from the Cullen Foundation and the Sid Richardson Foundation, the Jefferson Center is developing a collection of online curriculum resources for secondary school courses in history and English and introductory college courses in American history. These resources will help teachers incorporate into their courses two kinds of materials with rich potential for moral and civic education: primary documents in American history and biographies of exemplary individuals.

Through a careful study of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, landmark supreme court cases, and presidential speeches and declarations, students will develop their understanding of major moral problems that our country has faced collectively. An abundance of historical documents is available online; we are working to assemble a manageable collection of about 100 truly essential documents in American history with accompanying instructional resources. Guided discussion of these documents can develop students’ capacity for moral reasoning, their appreciation for the complexity of the moral problems that have animated our nation’s political life, an understanding of rival political, moral, and religious positions, and a capacity to articulate cogent moral arguments.

At the same time, through reading well-chosen biographies and autobiographies, students will come to know a variety of inspiring individuals while becoming more thoughtful about the virtues of character that make such outstanding lives possible, the difficult choices all such people have faced, and the limitations that beset even the best of them. Again, there is an abundance of biographies to choose from; we propose to draw up a list of especially good ones that are short, accessible, accurate, and balanced, and to develop resources to help secondary school teachers make use of this time-honored staple of moral education, the stories of lives worth reflecting upon and worth emulating.

Both historical documents and high quality biographies are, we submit, especially well suited to deliver lessons in moral education that are serious, realistic, nuanced, and inspiring. Such lessons will avoid two opposite pitfalls that often defeat moral education: preachy admonitions and sanitized heroes that are not credible, and attention to injustice, corruption, and oppression so unrelenting as to dishearten students and turn them into young cynics. By putting before students outstanding examples of moral reasoning and of lives well lived and by then raising probing questions about them, these curriculum resources will help students develop their own moral thoughtfulness and serious moral purpose.

Essential Documents in American History

Biographies and Autobiographies