The Foundational Course: "Ethical Leadership in a Democracy"

‚ÄčLiving 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. Without leadership, however, we can too easily remain polarized and paralyzed. Effective leadership allows us to reconcile competing factions and help us to choose a direction. Ethical leadership must also know why it is right to take these actions and 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: How are leaders best educated to be effective in a democracy? How important should morality be to leaders? What do citizens owe one another?

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 and confront the limits of leadership in the fine arts and religion. Most importantly, students learn to ask how the course readings and discussions might inform the development of their own characters and values to the leadership roles they will ultimately assume as they seek to make a positive difference in our world.

The Sonya Project

The literacy required to live in civil society, the competence to participate in democratic communities, the ability to think critically and act deliberately in a pluralistic world, the empathy that permits us to hear and thus accommodate others, all involve skills that must be acquired. Excellence is the product of teaching and is liberty’s measure.

– Benjamin Barber
in An Aristocracy of Everyone


The Sonya Project is an award-winning service-learning project that links Illinois College students to at-risk children in Jacksonville’s public schools. The Sonya Project is a key component of the leadership class. Volunteers do not work with their students just to help them improve their literacy and math skills—as important as that is. Sonya Project strives to help our children improve these skills in order to empower them to become productive and thoughtful citizens.

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.” At times, we have excluded many among us — persons who owned no property or who practiced different religions, for example. It was truly revolutionary to add them, as well as women and persons of color, to our electorate.

The Sonya Project partnerships we form seek to live up to Thomas Jefferson’s charge to the American polity to make education a priority among the people.

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.

All students in the leadership course participate in The Sonya Project, but the program extends well beyond this course.  Other courses have also elected to join the Sonya Project, and individual students are also welcome to participate when nominated by a faculty member. 

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