Exploring the Land of Democracy’s Birth

Ohio Wesleyan students assemble in Athens—Greece

OWU politics and government professor Ashley Biser and a group of 13 students discuss the history of democracy and the rights and duties of global citizens. The group traveled to Greece over spring break as part of their travel-learning experience. (Photo by John Holliger)

“Who wishes to address the Assembly?”

Thus spoke the Herald, living in the days of ancient Athens, at periodic gatherings of male citizens who came to listen, discuss, debate, or vote on issues and decrees affecting all areas of Athenian life, public and private.

All could attend the Assemblies: Fishmongers, rich athletes, and farmers; factions representing radical Democrats, moderate Democrats, Oligarchs, and Socratics; the rich and the poor. For as Socrates himself proclaimed, when matters concerning the governing of the city were discussed, “any man—smith, shoe maker, merchant, sea captain, rich or poor may speak.”

As Ohio Wesleyan University politics and government professor Ashley Biser and her group of 13 students prepared for their travel-learning experiences in Greece, which took place during spring break, they became more familiar with what has been recognized for centuries as the land of democracy’s birth.

Biser describes the travel-learning course, “Citizenship in an Age of Empire: From Ancient Athens to 21st Century America,” as an “exploration of the rights and duties of a global citizen through the lens of democratic theory and deliberate practice.”

While in Greece, she and her students—including majors in science, politics and government, women’s and gender studies, economics, sociology-anthropology, early education, journalism, and pre-medicine-history—met with a hedge fund manager, ex-diplomat, and government officials, and also engaged in many conversations with townspeople. Day trips to places like Delphi and the Temple of Athena, museums, the Stadium, and the Pnyx—the rock outside of the Parthenon at which many of the early Assemblies took place—and to a refugee center to help children with English lessons, opened the students’ eyes to the culture, economy, politics, and wondrous origins and history of the beginning of democratic thought and practice.

“This course offered students a historical perspective on global citizenship by situating the concept in ancient Athens before turning to contemporary theories of citizenship,” says Biser. “The course also afforded students the opportunity to experience the difficulties—and delights—of democratic participation for themselves as they recreated Athenian Assembly sessions, both on the OWU campus and in Athens.”

Divided into sections, the course first focused on basic conceptions of democracy and citizenship, as articulated in the texts of ancient Athens. Simulations of the Athenian Assembly while in Greece (and after the group returned to campus) also were part of the course, featuring speeches of up to two minutes by each student. Separate from the simulation project are continuing discussions and debates.

Victoria Wehner ’13 of Powell, Ohio, delivers an oratory to her assembled classmates. (Photo by John Holliger)

As Biser explains, the course’s final project is designed to offer students a chance to pursue a particular contemporary dilemma associated with global citizenship, based on their own interests.

“For example, our women’s and gender studies major, Kaitlin Lentz ’13, is looking at ways in which the debates about citizenship in Greece dealt with gender,” says Biser.

As the student-travelers and professor gathered for a post-trip lunch on campus, all agreed that they now have a better understanding of politics and the importance of people gathering to discuss, deliberate, and, at times, compromise to arrive at a consensus. For all, their experiences in Greece were among the best of their lives and will never be forgotten.

As chemistry major Victoria Wehner ’13 summarizes, “You need to travel in order to be a global citizen.”

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