The American Experience

  • Students at Dinner Seminar
    Students at Dinner Seminar
  • Student at Stagville Plantation
    Student at Stagville Plantation
  • Prof. Nora Hanagan and Students
    Prof. Nora Hanagan and Students
  • Students at Raleigh Convention Center
    Students at Raleigh Convention Center
  • 2 students at World Fair
    2 students at World Fair


In this FOCUS cluster, we examine the making and remaking of the United States from a variety of perspectives--historical, political, philosophical, religious, legal and literary. What does America profess to value in its institutions, and what realities does it, in fact, institute? How are we to know the differences? Can they be addressed? In each seminar, we examine the interplay between consecrated ideas of what America is—a land of opportunity, a city on a hill, a nation of laws, a society dedicated to the principle that “all men are created equal,” and the lived experience of Americans, including those who have been dispossessed by slavery, nativism, racism and other forms of prejudice and injustice. We continue these reflections at our weekly dinners, where we pay particular attention to the aspirations and historical realities that have shaped Duke and Durham.


History 190FS — Religious Freedom in America: A Legal History (CZ, CCI, EI, W)

Jenette Wood Crowley, Academic Dean, Trinity College; Director of the SPIRE fellows program; Co-coordinator, the Pipeline Initiative; Instructor in the History Department

This course explores major themes and moments in American religious history that have shaped the development of the nation. The approach will be chronological, but also topical: we will begin with the continent’s original pluralism in its hundreds of Native American religious traditions, then move to powerful varieties of Protestant Christianity as they interacted with smaller groups, including colonial era Jews, upstart Mormons, African American Christians, newly immigrated Catholics, and more recently arrived immigrants who practice Hinduism and Islam. We will talk about Ghost Dances, spirit rapping, polygamy, holy wars, self-help groups, faith healing and psychedelic religion, as well as more mainstream developments such as Vatican II, conscientious objection, televangelism, the ordination of women, and same sex marriage.

Rather than debating religious truth, the course explores and analyzes the many religious perspectives that have shaped American history. This exploration includes looking at things that many students would not consider “religious” at first glance, and thus thinking deeply about how we define religion with a goal toward understanding and appreciating the richness, complexity, and influence of this country’s contemporary religious landscape.

Political Science 188FS/ Ethics 188FS — American Perspectives on Citizenship  (SS, EI)

Nora Hanagan, Lecturing Fellow of Political Science

What, if any, responsibilities accompany citizenship in a democratic society? Voting? Active participation in political meetings? Obeying laws? Volunteering in one’s community? This course offers an overview of the different ways in which Americans have answered these questions. We begin by examining the Puritan vision of political society as a community united by Christian fellowship, and conclude by discussing whether citizens in an increasingly global society must accept some responsibility for the wellbeing of people who live in other countries.

By the end of the semester, you will have a better sense of how American conceptions of citizenship and civic duty have evolved over time. You will also be familiar with several controversies about the meaning and purpose of American citizenship, including ongoing debates about whether citizens should be actively involved in making and implementing public policy, whether American society promotes individualism at the expense of civic duty, whether there are certain experiences and values that all citizens should share, and whether contemporary challenges—such as globalization and climate change—require changes in how Americans understand citizenship. Finally, you should have a sense of where you stand on these questions. 

Ethics 171FS/ English 173FS — The Ethics of Democracy (ALP, CZ, EI)

Geoffrey Harpham, Visiting Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics

This course examines the treatment of ethical dilemmas in American literature and film. Like all cultures, American culture consists not of a set of unchallenged values or customs, but rather of a set of issues on which we have agreed to disagree. While these issues can take historical, social, or political form, they often require choices that seem ethical in that they reflect individual decisions based on values or principles. Choices of this kind assume a prominence in a democracy that they may not have in cultures in which individual freedom and autonomy are not emphasized so strongly, and in this sense, American culture can be said to be particularly “ethical.” We will be reading a range of texts, and seeing a couple of films, that bring public issues--race, sex, inequality, religion, education, patriotism--into focus in the form of occasions for moral choice. Possible readings include Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth,” Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the films Show Boat and High Noon.

Public Policy 190FS — Race and Public Policy (CCI, EI, SS)

Adam Hollowell, Director of Student Ministry at Duke University Chapel; Adjunct Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

What is race, and how does it impact public policy in the contemporary United States? How have institutions, political leaders, and individual citizens wrestled with the role of race and racism in democracy? What models of change are available to future leaders who want to resist racial prejudice? This course considers these questions and related issues by examining a variety of perspectives on the relationship between race and public policy. We will discuss these issues across many areas of future work for students, including health care, economics, law, and government. We will also investigate the psychological processes of racial bias and the hidden forces at work in policy decision-making. Readings will include, among others, chapters from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists, and Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in an American City.

By the end of the semester, students will have a better understanding of race as a social construct and institutional force that impacts policy in the United States. You will be familiar with contemporary debates across a variety of areas, including policing and incarceration, health disparities, housing, and climate change. The course encourages students to reflect on a range of political and philosophical alternatives to matters of race and public policy, and it aims to help students discover and articulate their own commitments and callings on these important issues.

Faculty Director

Nora Hanagan
Nora Hanagan
  • Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science
  • Managing Director of the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions
294B Gross Hall
Campus Box: 
(919) 660-4338