For 30 years Davidson's political science department has been inviting students to learn about governance from the heart of the fray in Washington, D.C. For eight weeks in the summer students on the Davidson in Washington (DIW) program are doubly immersed in life "inside the beltway." They find and engage in an internship in offices of politicians, think tanks, lobbyists, lawyers and other organizations. And two evenings each week the resident director leads them in a topical seminar. Past groups have tackled foreign policy, national security, democracy and religion, and the politics of urban place-making.
In this 30th anniversary year of DIW, students are tackling another contentious issue: same-sex marriage.
The concentration of diplomats, analysts, commentators and legislators in D.C. always provide a rich source of guest lecturers for the seminar. This summer's resident political science professor, Brian Shaw, has gathered another compelling list of experts to tutor the 21 students in his care. Shaw regularly teaches a Davidson course in "Family and Justice," and has reconfigured that into a course for this year's DIW symposium called "Politics, Families and the Law."
The course is focused on moral and legal arguments for and against same-sex marriage. Just one year ago the Supreme Court issued its Windsor decision striking down the core of the Defense of Marriage Act, which opened the way for about 20 judicial decisions at the district court level to strike down state marriage amendments.
Given such a controversial topic, there's plenty for students to consider.
Shaw writes in his course syllabus, "In myriad ways largely unanticipated, breathtakingly rapid, and vastly consequential, marriage and family life in the United States and elsewhere during the last few decades have undergone fundamental transformations. Stunning increases in both the rates and numbers of out-of-wedlock births, cohabitating households, and divorce, along with equally remarkable changes in women's fertility and workplace participation, have fundamentally altered both sexes' experiences of and expectations about family life. It is within this dizzying vortex of changing family life that demands for same-sex marriage in the United States have appeared."
Shaw has assembled a lineup of eminent guest speakers representing a broad spectrum of opinion. A half-dozen are authors of books and articles on the course reading list. They include Kay Hymowitz, author of the book Manning Up and Ryan Anderson, a co-author of What is Marriage?, a prominent argument against same-sex marriage. The class also heard from Davidson alumnus William Eskridge '73, an influential advocate for same-sex marriage and the author of a casebook, monographs and dozens of law review articles articulating a legal and political framework for proper state treatment of sexual and gender minorities.
Professor Shaw sees his job as helping students toward a thorough understanding of and appreciation for different points of view. "While it's true that most of them probably support same-sex marriage, they can't always articulate their reasoning," he said. "I have no interest in whether they think same-sex marriage is a good or bad thing. But I insist that by the end of the course they'll have good ideas of why they're for it or not. It's complicated, and some students get very confused about it. That's not a bad thing."
Political science major Kate Zhou '16 enrolled in the DIW program with a unique perspective. She was raised in the Chinese culture and political system, where same-sex marriage is not only illegal, but unheard of. "People don't even talk about it," she said. "It's been very interesting to see what American people think."
Zhou said she appreciates the way Shaw leads students to consider every aspect of the issue. "You go to one class and you'd think he was in favor of same sex marriage, but in the next you'd think he was opposed. I appreciate how he doesn't impose his own view, but works to help us see both sides."
Bolton Smith '16 also has enjoyed the way Shaw's course has challenged his views. "I co-founded the Libertarian Club at Davidson and was resolutely pro on same-sex marriage because it would get government out of our love lives," he said. "Now I'm resolutely unsure! The course discussion and our speakers have shown me this is a much more complex issue than I thought."
Several students said one of the most interesting speakers was Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor of National Journal and The Atlantic, and author of the 2004 book, Gay Marriage. Though he's an avowed conservative, Rauch favors same-sex marriage as a means of strengthening the troubled institution of marriage in general. Smith recalled, "Rauch argued that the institution of marriage in general is in trouble, so why not help solidify it as a cultural institution by extending it to same-sex couples? That was certainly a new point of view for me!"
In the interest of lifelong learning, Shaw has invited interested Davidson alumni to attend class. Heather Sims '14 was eager to audit the class in part because her recently obtained full-time job with the American Enterprise Institute involves analysis of polling that occasionally touches on family issues. Sims said, "Professor Shaw has assembled the A-team of players in the same sex marriage debate, and I just couldn't resist the opportunity to be a fly on the wall in that room!"
While the subject is engaging, the course requirements are rigorous. There are readings for every class session, a mid-term take home review and a final take home review. Shaw intends for everyone to contribute to the discussion, and so counts class participation as 20 percent of the course grade.
In addition to being an intellectual challenge, the Davidson in Washington program is structured as an exercise in independence. Students find their own accommodations and line up their own internships, with help and guidance from both Shaw and the college's Center for Career Development. The internship organizations run the gamut of Washington institutions and agencies. Hunter Price '16 is an intern for Congressman Jim Gerlach, researching issues and giving capitol tours to constituents. Zhou works as a regulatory policy intern at the American Action Forum think tank, helping provide policymakers, academicians and the general public with data concerning regulations. Naomi Coffmann '16 has become a big fan of the State Department through her internship at the non-profit Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
There's no requirement that internships have a connection to the issue of same-sex marriage, but Michael Moore '17 has an internship in the national office of the United Methodist Church, which made headlines this summer with a contentious decision to approve same-sex marriage.
Bolton Smith '16 is getting work experience and language training through his internship at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. As a research intern, he spends much of his time reading German language documents and conversing with native-speaking German staffers.
The program also gives students valuable entrée, experience and contacts in the nation's capital. Davidson's Office of Alumni Relations contributes to the effort through a networking reception for students and area alumni. About 200 people attended this year.
Coffmann, a political science major, grew up in Annapolis, Md., and has visited nearby Washington, D.C., many times. But she says living there independently through DIW has been an exciting and enriching experience. Every day brings new adventure, new acquaintances and self-confidence. She lives just five minutes from the national mall and has enjoyed strolling the grounds, visiting history museums and monuments, attending lectures at the Cato Institute, and exploring her new neighborhood. "I love D.C., and could easily see myself living here," she said.
Smith agreed. "Washington is a great place to be young!" he said.