After Independence Day, Exploring American Origins at Samford University
by Sean Flynt
As the last of the Independence Day potato salad was consumed and the bunting put away, students at Samford University took up the banner of the nation’s founding philosophies.
Starting July 6 and ending July 19, high school students from throughout the U.S. came to Samford for two week-long sessions of the Great Ideas Summer Institute, (GISI) a summer program developed by Samford’s University Fellows honors program.
The students explored the ancient Greek and Roman ideas that inspired the creation of the United States of America and sustained it through the trials of revolution, civil war and the struggles for civil rights.
The unique program introduced students to influential texts by authors ranging from Aristotle and Plutarch through the American founders and up through Lincoln and Thurgood Marshall. In lively seminars for hours each day, faculty and students discussed the core ideas of each text and challenged each other to think more deeply about what they believe and why.
University Fellows director Bryan Johnson and Classics and Fellows professor Shannon Flynt led the discussions with help from current University Fellows Courtney Allen, Franklin Lowe, Alex MacLean, Laura Ann Prickett, Rachel Ray and Abigail Slone. Fellows alumnus Wes Spears `14 returned to Samford from graduate school to help with the program.
Each year, many GISI students decide to attend Samford and a few become University Fellows. That’s not the point of the program, though. The faculty and preceptors simply believe in the lasting value of the texts and recognize that they are missing from the academic experience of most students. University Fellows director Johnson said they either aren’t engaging with these texts at all in high school, or if they are they are not discussing them freely or in great depth.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere than anything I’ve ever gotten to be a part of,” said Kyla Kugler, a high school senior from Chelsea, Ala. “It’s amazing to actually feel like I’m a part of what I’m learning and look at things from a completely different perspective.”
Annie Brown, of Odenville, Ala., had a good idea what to expect at GISI because her many visits to Samford have included sitting in on Fellows classes. But even those experiences didn’t give her the full effect of an honors classroom. She recognized and valued the intellectual challenge but didn’t feel comfortable jumping into the discussion as a guest. She said GISI gave her the full experience of the academic rigor and responsibility of participation. “That’s how I learn best,” she said, “being able to pick things apart, dissect them, not just be talked to.”
Johnson said Brown’s experience is part of GISI’s value to students. “We want them to get a good sense of what college is like, and what a particular kind of college classroom is like,” he said. Only then will they know if that atmosphere truly appeals to them. “Until the pressure is on, you have no idea,” Johnson said.
That pressure takes the form of intense and informed discussion about challenging and even controversial topics. That, too, is part of the plan. “I want them to see, through the fellows who are in there with them, and through us, what a civil discussion looks like,” Johnson said.
“I always hope we’re modeling for them the standard—critical reading and thinking–and that nobody is off the hook,” Classics professor Flynt added. That doesn’t mean the students have to agree with each other or with GISI faculty and preceptors, but it does mean distinguishing between what the authors wrote and what one thinks they meant. “Sometimes we don’t come to an answer,” Flynt said. “Sometimes we just don’t know and all we can do is speculate, but we know that’s what we’re doing.”
Both sessions of GISI ran concurrently with a new Quantitative Finance Summer Institute (QFSI) hosted by University Fellows and sharing activities with GISI. The program, led by Chris Whaley and also assisted by Fellows preceptors, aims to give high school students a practical knowledge of the quantitative and analytical methods used in modern finance and go beyond basic financial market education to utilize advanced skills sets such as calculus, data analysis, and multi-level critical thinking.
QFSI student Andrew Freeman of McKinney, Tex., studies computer science but hopes to start a software business someday. The finance aspect of the program attracted him, and didn’t disappoint. “I’m going away with a ton of new knowledge on finance and the stock market,” he said. “I think I’m now adequately prepared to start trading stocks on my own.”
Outside of their seminars, the 52 GISI and QFSI students explored local sites including the Birmingham Museum of Art, Vulcan Park, Railroad Park, Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
PHOTO: Kyla Kugler and Robbie Lee take part in a GISI discussion