Program & Curriculum

Anyone teaching American civilization knows that it is a difficult time to be engaged in that soul- and citizen-shaping endeavor. When was it not so? It is always difficult to avoid the “delusion of the exceptional Now,” to avoid the quicksand of presentism, to find firm ground from which to view the past and to learn “how they did it.” How did our forebears face challenges as great (or greater) than ours and prevail? What can we learn from their example? Teachers of American history are and ever have been on the front lines of a national conversation about where we’ve come from, who we are, and where we’re going. Every teacher knows that the exercise of the historical imagination is the only cure for naïve presentism, the only way to strengthen the shaky ground beneath us, the only means of sustaining a sense of continuity that “can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present” (quotations from Dos Passos).

The Abraham Lincoln Teachers Fellowship is a new initiative aimed at creating a community of exceptional Jewish day school and yeshiva educators interested in strengthening how we teach American civilization. A selected group of high school and middle school teachers of American history and related disciplines will spend time with us, with their peers, and with world-renowned guest speakers: reading, discussing and thinking hard about great themes of American history, with imagination and spirit. Our program extends from January to May 2021, with advanced seminars every other week on Zoom and guided independent study on subjects of special interest to each individual teacher. Fellows will be eligible to apply for additional summer funding and programming.

At Tikvah, we are looking to support teachers who still believe in the indispensability of the historical imagination. We are looking for individuals who wish to offer their students a version of the American story that recognizes, in historian Wilfred McClay’s words, that “love is the foundation of the wisest criticism, and criticism is the partner of an honest and enduring love.” Without love of our country, our criticisms may be unwise; without patriotic criticism of our country, our love for it cannot endure. In this spirit, we will cover a wide range of themes—religion, freedom, self-government, equality, and commerce—across our 400 years and more of history. See below for a more detailed description of these subjects.


In an effort to accommodate all Fellows’ schedules, the Abraham Lincoln Teachers Fellowship will offer two time slot options: A Sunday night track and a Wednesday night track. The tentative dates are listed below. In addition, we will host a series of high-level special events with leading historians and public intellectuals.
Option A: Sunday nights Option B: Wednesday nights
Session 1 Jan. 10 Jan. 13
Session 2 Jan. 17 Jan. 27
Session 3 Jan. 31 Feb. 10
Session 4 Feb. 14 Feb. 24
Session 5 Feb. 28 Mar. 10
Session 6 Mar. 14 Mar. 17
Session 7 Mar. 21 Apr. 7
Session 8 Apr. 11 Apr. 21
Session 9 Apr. 25 May 5
Session 10 May 9 May 19
The entire cohort will gather for a final session in which Fellows will present their own work.

Seminar Themes

The Abraham Lincoln Teachers Fellowship will host ten seminars led by Dean Harry Ballan. Guided by Professor Wilfred McClay’s seminal book—Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story—each seminar will focus on major themes that define, capture, and illuminate who we are as a nation, a culture, and a people.
Religion in America: America has proved the compatibility of the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty, and religion has been central to the American story at every turn. Tocqueville saw that religion restrained self-assertion in ways that only made the exercise of liberty more effective, from the First Great Awakening through the Revolution, Founding and Early Republic, to the Second Great Awakening, the Jacksonian era and the Civil War, and in the persons of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and other great American leaders in every age.
The spirit of American commercial life: We study commercial life in America starting with the birth of the commercial republic, from the Founding to the Civil War, to the triumph of capitalism (1865-1914), from the First World War and its aftermath (“the business of America is business”) to the Great Depression and the “Golden Age” of growth (1945-1970), from stagflation (Richard Nixon) to a renewal of optimism (Ronald Reagan), from the Great Recession to current views of the American economy and its future.
America as the redeemer nation: We will explore the idea that America is a nation chosen by Providence to spread certain universal ideals, from Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to the Revolution, Manifest Destiny, the Civil and Spanish-American Wars, and doctrines of American exceptionalism from the colonial period to Wilson and Reagan.
America and Europe: From European anticipations of a New World as a place of renewal, to America’s intellectual declaration of independence in Emerson’s “American Scholar,” from the American sense of cultural inferiority to its opposite (both are present in Henry James), we will investigate America’s connection to and ambivalence towards its European origins.
Did America begin with revolution?: Is the American Revolution best understood as an event within the British Empire, or is it better understood on strictly American grounds? The way one understands America’s religious, political and intellectual history, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, are all affected by one’s approach to this question.
America as a political founding: We examine the distinctiveness of the United States in having a clear moment when the nation-state and its institutions were created, and we investigate the role of those who participated in shaping the American political order and moral imagination. This relates to other themes, such as the roles of both religion and enlightenment in our quest for self-rule. The role of Hebraic ideas in the Founding and its aftermath has special significance for us.
American federalism: From the Colonial Period to the Revolution, Early Republic, Secession and Civil War, from the Civil War Amendments to the Civil Rights movement, from the New Deal and Great Society to more recent controversies: What is the significance of our federalist form of government?
The American idea of liberty: We explore ordered liberty in America and its ubiquitous presence, from its expression in the Bill of Rights to the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, from the earliest development of civil rights to the securing of religious and economic freedoms. We include a consideration of the possible tensions between the ideals of equality and ordered liberty.
The American idea of equality: A key word in American history, but how does equality relate to ideals of ordered liberty, including the role of hierarchy in American society from the Puritans to the welfare state, from the turbulent 1960s to the present moment, from the brutal institution of slavery to its aftermath? What does it mean that “all men are created equal,” and what does the American quest for equality strive for?
Self-rule and the self-made man: The idea of the rugged individual is basic to the American story and opposed to post-modern ideas of the self. Many elements of American history can be viewed through this lens, including distinctively American ideas regarding liberty, equality, immigration, social class, and attitudes towards Europe. Colonial, Revolutionary and Victorian advocates of self-making had a certain understanding of the soul and the challenge of building character that is identifiably Hebraic.
Immigration and the social fabric: Immigration, says McClay, “captures both what is wonderful and what is heart-breaking about the American experience” – it is the beating heart of the land of hope and yet a source of disappointment for many who did not or could not make it here. Immigration presents a rich and complex history with special relevance for Jews. Here we consider the experience of American pluralism, from the early reception of immigrants and the treatment of minorities, to the subsequent waves of immigrants and the reception of their cultures in the centuries since, including the cultures of slaves and those descended from them.
The American frontier: We consider the American frontier, with its “vibrant and almost mystical ring,” the unsettled territory where civilization renews itself, and its role in defining American character, with special attention to Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 lecture on the role of the frontier in establishing American democracy.
The American South: The South had a distinctive culture with its own sense of religion and honor and its own art and literature. These form a vital part of the American story and are worthy of careful study notwithstanding the stain of slavery.
The American city: We consider the American city, exploring the implications of Hofstadter’s idea that America was “born in the country and moved to the city.” We examine Jefferson’s belief in the purity of yeoman farmers as well as a century and more of fascination with the modern city.
Nature in the American experience: We examine the idea of “nature” in the American experience, from America as the new Zion in the wilderness to Jefferson’s agrarianism, from the waxing and waning of Calvinist doctrines of nature to the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, from Theodore Roosevelt’s naturalism to the 1960s and environmentalism.
The Hebraic spirit of America: One of the distinctive purposes of this fellowship is to explore the Hebraic spirit of America. America is inconceivable without the influence of the Hebrew Bible. One sees it in the first British colonies, from the Mayflower Compact at Plymouth (1620) and John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” speech on the Arbella (1630), to later Puritans such as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. The moral and political spirit of Puritans and their successors is dominated by biblical ideas. The biblical covenant is reconceived with America as the Promised Land in sermons like Edwards’s “The Latter Day Glory is Probably to Begin in America” (1742), delivered at the height of the First Great Awakening, and has been reconceived repeatedly since. Founders such as John Adams and Benjamin Rush were profoundly influenced by the Hebrew Bible, as were Enlightenment figures like Benjamin Franklin. Also in the Founding era, great sermonists like Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, and John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton, delivered numerous and influential sermons on Hebraic texts. The influence of the Bible continues during the Early Republic and Jacksonian era and reaches new heights in the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. Also in Jackson’s time, a Hebraic strain is found in novelists like Hawthorne and Melville, whose sense of human nature, its possibilities and limitations, was informed by their deep reading of the Bible. So too in the debates over slavery (on both sides), in slave spirituals and African-American culture, the Bible is a central text and views of human purpose and possibility derived from it predominate. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, ideas of liberty—religious, political, economic, and civil—are proclaimed throughout the land by reference to the Bible.
The Jewish experience in America: The first Jews in America were Spanish and Portuguese, seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. From colonial times, Jews have embodied many of the themes described above, from liberty and commerce to immigration and pluralism. Jews eventually settled across colonial America and played important and sometimes leading roles in politics, culture and the economy. Waves of immigration increased the impact of Jews on America, especially after the Civil War and the Eastern-European Jewish migration that began in the 1880s. Although Jews won the rights of citizenship and cultural acceptance relatively early in the story, questions of identity and assimilation have been persistent, even as Jewish contributions to politics, culture, and the economy have been constant. In each time period discussed above, from the colonial period to the present, we will examine the lives of significant Jewish figures, from Jonas Phillips in the Founding era to the first Jewish Army chaplain under Lincoln, from Justice Louis Brandeis in the Progressive era to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, to discern the contributions of Jews to America and the influence of America on Jews.

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