Political discourse doesn’t enjoy a good reputation nowadays, but a Boston College initiative that aims to foster reasoned, frank, and respectful discussion among students offers a template for civic engagement, according to organizers and participants.

The Undergraduate Marshall Fellows Program, now in its second year, selects upwards of 20 students each academic year for a series of seminars and reading groups: Subject matter for recent gatherings has included the 2016 election, U.S. relations with Russia and China, and BC campus reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency. Marshall Fellows also meet with distinguished guest speakers – among them historians Francis Fukuyama and Wilfred McClay – in small gatherings.   

Catherine Daniels '17 makes a point at a gathering of the Undergraduate Marshall Fellows held by the BC Political Science Department. (Frank Curran)

The program is a component of the Political Science Department’s John Marshall Project – named for the 19th-century U.S. Supreme Court chief justice who advocated for civic education of the young – which promotes a focused study of “the citizenship and statesmanship needed by a democratic and constitutional republic” through a variety of activities and resources.  

Nominated by faculty members and selected by an advisory committee, Marshall Fellows are regarded as having a deep-seated, intellectual appreciation for American politics and history, and the potential for leadership roles in academia, public service or other related fields – desirable qualities in an age characterized by social media rants, alternative facts and fake news.

“What characterizes Marshall Fellows is their willingness and desire to engage with texts that illuminate current events,” says Assistant Professor of the Practice of Political Science David DiPasquale, director of the John Marshall Project. “We introduce them to both contemporary and historical readings that act as a ballast in considering what we see and hear today. 

“So although there is a lot of material covering classic political science or historical thought, this is not an antiquarian endeavor. The program uses the greatness of American history to promote something new and exciting.”

Undergraduate Marshall Fellows are eligible for summer research and study stipends, and partially funded attendance at conferences where relevant. The John Marshall Project also awards two $500 prizes for outstanding undergraduate papers related to principles of constitutional government and public leadership.

 “It’s a lot of fun to interact with these students, who I think are some of BC’s brightest, and who represent a spectrum of ideological views,” says Matthew Berry PhD ’16, who as the 2016-17 John Marshall Post-Doctoral Fellow helps organize the fellowship program. “These are students who have a big-picture view, and a great regard for the norms and procedures of constitutional democracy. They continually surprise me with their intelligence and capacity to listen to one another.”

Marshall Fellow Catherine Daniels ’17, an English and political science major from Bethesda, Md., reciprocates the praise. “Matt does a great job of giving us texts to read and pushing us to think harder. The conversation can go in so many directions.”

Daniels recounts one recent session that involved reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” but also other writings that questioned the effectiveness of King’s approach to civil disobedience. 

“For many people, civil disobedience is practically synonymous with Martin Luther King,” says Daniels. “So there were a lot of strong feelings and vehement opinions when we talked about these readings. But the discussions themselves were civil, and it was interesting to hear what everyone had to say.

“While these conversations happen once a month, the process of thinking over what’s said takes longer,” she adds. “It’s planting seeds for how we consider issues and events in the future.”

Through the Marshall Fellows Program, junior Maxwell Grechko has awakened his interest in foreign policy issues: He describes a session on the benefits and risks of “off-shore balancing,” a strategy of pursuing regional hegemony, instead of direct involvement, to check the rise of potential hostile powers. But he’s also been intrigued by other topics, such as McClay’s remarks on the decreasing level of religiosity in the U.S. – in fact, he was moved to write a reflection on the talk and shared it with a professor.

“I’ve had faith in the American system,” said Grechko, a Glastonbury, Ct., native majoring in political science with a minor in Hispanic studies. “But the discussions make me realize that people really are willing to have these kinds of substantive talks – as opposed to throwing soundbites at each other – and discuss how the US, as a constitutional democracy, should function. I find this very reassuring.”

Grechko and Daniels both praise Berry and DiPasquale for their oversight of the program: “They could be at home, but instead they’re giving us this great learning opportunity.”

-Sean Smith / University Communications