The Foundational Course:
IS 205 “Leading the Way: Meaningful Leadership in a Democracy”
Living in a democracy demands that we recognize that the people shall rule, even as we worry about their capacity to do so. It is a form of government that calls upon us to demonstrate faith in each other, but to remain skeptical of one another’s motives and abilities. It is a tension writ large in the very history of our country. That history, however, compels us to recognize that without leadership we can too easily remain polarized and paralyzed. Real challenges exist. Real needs must be met. Effective leadership allows us to bridge the intended inefficiencies, to reconcile the competing factions and help us to choose the direction we should go. Moreover, the best leadership must also know why it is right to take these actions and must be able to convince the rest of us that this is so. The best leadership inspires us to take up the highest standards, and challenges us to meet the most formidable goals.
In this interdisciplinary course students read, discuss and reflect on the fundamental concept of leadership across a wide range of historical periods. They grapple with such questions as Why lead? Why follow? How are leaders best educated to be effective in a democracy? What type(s) of leaders are the best in a democracy? How important should morality be to leaders? What do citizens owe one another? In what way(s) does leadership intersect with the idea of service? These questions belong to no single era, ideology, or discipline. Students meet leaders, large and small, in literature and throughout history. They consider the purposes of leadership in philosophy. They confront the limits of leadership in the fine arts and religion. They learn to ask how the readings and discussions inform the leadership roles they will ultimately assume as they seek to make a positive difference in the world. Finally, they connect the lessons of the classroom to service-learning.
The Sonya Project
When Ben Carson was just a boy, there was little in his life that could have predicted that he would one day grow up to become a world-famous pediatric neurosurgeon. But his mother, Sonya, had big dreams for her two sons. Despite the obstacles she faced herself – she was a single mother who never finished high school – she nonetheless instilled in her boys a life-long love of learning that showed them the way to “dream big.” Every week, Sonya Carson required her sons to visit the public library and choose two books. The choice was theirs, but the expectation was not to be ignored. Ben and his brother would then have to “report” on the books they had selected (orally, when they were very young, but then in writing as they grew older). Ben grew up searching the library stacks for books that interested him and discovering a world that was much bigger than his own. Today, Dr. Ben Carson has a foundation dedicated to building reading rooms across the country where children can find safe places to discover these other worlds and lift their eyes well beyond their immediate horizons. His foundation also raises money for scholarships for young people to pursue their dreams of college. The Illinois College readership project – or, The Sonya Project, named in honor of Dr. Carson’s mother – links Illinois College students to at-risk children in Jacksonville’s public schools.
Why This Project for the Leadership Class?
The Sonya Project is a key component of the leadership class. The readership program that we have developed is integrally linked to the very purposes of the course, “Meaningful Leadership in a Democracy.” At its heart is the notion of political equality, the belief that all citizens are equal and all should have an equal opportunity to participate in deciding the direction the country takes. Students are not working with their reading partners just to help them improve their skills — as important as that is. Instead, this project takes a longer-range view and hope for these children. We believe that improving these skills will actually help to prepare them to become productive and thoughtful citizens as well.
To imagine that the “people” (especially as that concept expanded across our history) have the right to rule has been a truly radical assertion at every step. From the beginning and continuing even to today, we have debated who can qualify to be included in the “people.”
Citizens today are called upon to think critically about complex issues, choose among competing ideas and select leaders who can decide in ways that reflect the concerns of those who put them in office. We depend on the education of citizens to prepare them to do this. “Learning,” according to the landmark education report, A Nation at Risk, “is the indispensable investment required for [the] success” of any person.” Importantly, this assertion is about even greater things than just meeting the economic challenges we face in this country. Indeed, it extends to the “intellectual, moral and spiritual strengths of our people,” the very factors which “knit together the fabric of our society.” Without high levels of literacy and skill development, the authors of the report warned, it is highly likely that many citizens will find themselves “effectively disenfranchised,” bypassed not just in the economic marketplace but in our national political life as well. How can we avoid such a calamity?
We need look no further for a thoughtful answer than to Thomas Jefferson who charged us all to protect the rights of the people as well as to meet the needs of a government based on their will by making their education a priority when he asserted
I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves;
and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome
discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.
Here, in this project, we find this to be our charge as well.
The Al Habtoor Leadership Lecture Series
Illinois College is proud to sponsor an exciting lecture series that focuses on leadership, peace-building, conflict management, business, and tolerance. The series is made possible by a generous gift from Dr. Khalaf Al Habtoor, L.H.D., ’10, Illinois College. Speakers in this series include Ta-Nihisi Coates, R. Bruce Hutton, Charles Kimball, Nicolas Kristof, Michael Lame, Anisa Mehdi, Eli Saslow and Jack G. Shaheen.
All students at Illinois College, including those in the Leadership Program, benefit by a workshop series every semester that seeks to build personal and organizational leadership skills. Workshop topics have included: Project Planning, Bystander Intervention, Marketing Leadership Skills on Resumes, Handling Stress and Thinking about Risk Management in Organizations and Groups. Every leadership fellow is required to participate in at least two of these workshops per semester.