Next week, two Duke professors—B.J. Rudell, the associate director of POLIS: The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service; and Fritz Mayer, the associate dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy—will host a five-day seminar
, in which students will evaluate presidents in terms of measures of their “greatness.” It’s geared toward a very special—one might say peculiar—kind of student: the kind that is fine giving up his or her Spring Break for a weeklong class on politics that doesn’t even offer course credit.
“We’re really trying to engage students in politics in a wide variety of ways—in this case, how to think about the presidency,” Mayer explains.
This cohort, he says, came of age during President Obama’s administration, and thus their sense of what the presidency is and what the president does is shaped only by Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
And because it’s March, and there’s only one thing anyone at Duke cares about in March, Rudell thought it would be fun to put the forty-four presidents—Trump is considered number forty-five, but Grover Cleveland was elected to two nonconsecutive terms and thus is counted as numbers twenty-two and twenty-four
—into March Madness-style brackets, arranged by a very loose geographic location, to enable students to consider their plusses and minuses of each president.
There are intentional matchups: George W. Bush against John Quincy Adams, the two presidents who were sons of other presidents; Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, two feckless presidents whose failures led to the Civil War; Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, two presidents whose administrations were, well, unusual.
And that’s part of the point, Fritz says—to make students who’ve only been aware of Obama and Trump realize, from a historical perspective, what kind of anomaly Trump is.
“It’s more interesting if they come to this realization themselves that this is different than the past,” he says.
But it’s not just about Trump; it’s about what makes a presidency “great”: Is FDR “greater” than Teddy? On what do you base that? How much of that is a factor of FDR’s inherent qualities and how much is a factor of the times in which his presidency occurred? Would Abraham Lincoln have been a great president had he not risen to power at the dawn of the Civil War?
“We like people pushing back,” Rudell says.
The class isn’t open to the public, but the March Madness contest is. Click here to download your bracket
, fill it out, and email it to Rudell
. For the record, here is mine (in a wonky-looking PDF, sorry). You will see that Lincoln prevailed over FDR in my final.
See related PDF
The professors also reached out to at least seventeen top presidential historians ask their opinions, which you can read here. You’ll find cases for greatness, or at least quasi-greatness, made for some unusual suspects: Warren G. Harding, Jimmy Carter, Chester A. Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, and so on.
See related PDF