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Students Learn Democracy Is Hard Work
Susquehanna University

February 27, 2018

Some of Susquehanna's political science students spent two weeks participating in a simulation that had them rebuilding the government of ancient Athens.

The exercise, Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C., recreates one of the most important periods in the history of democracy. After decades of war, Athens is destroyed and occupied by a brutal regime. Civil war results and, as the simulation begins, democracy has been restored.

Led by Nick Clark, assistant professor of political science, students face serious questions, many of which resurface over subsequent crossroads in history:

  • How should members of the regime and its supporters be punished, if at all?
  • Will citizenship be broadened to include slaves who fought for the democracy and foreigners who paid taxes in its support?
  • Will Athens rebuild its border walls and warships?

Clark assigned each student a role and political faction—oligarch, Socratic, radical or moderate democrat, or indeterminate.

"I have a pretty good idea of where each student stands politically," Clark said, "so I assign them to factions that differ from their own personal beliefs."

Senior broadcasting major Kes Baker was cast as Gorgias the Younger, a fictional character based on Gorgias, a famous Athenian orator.

"This simulation helped me understand how complicated the democratic process is," Baker said. "It's not just sitting down and voting on a law; it's taking into consideration the views of other factions, of specific members of the assembly and your own character's views."

It was Baker's responsibility to award the best speaker with the Gorgias laurel wreath, a prize that went to Matthew Waldschmidt, a sophomore political science major.

"I was honored to get the laurel crown," Waldschmidt said. "I am glad that my classmates thought that my speech was worthy of the prize. But this honor would not have been possible without all of the reading and mental prep I did before class."

While students must adhere to the beliefs of their character, they devise their own means of expressing those ideas—speeches, plays, poetry. Students then propose their own laws. Arguments are made and a vote is taken. 

"They do far more research for this than for a paper," Clark said. "But they have more agency connected to it. They express much more interest in the subject matter when there is a simulation attached to it."

"This exercise is more meaningful to me than the the typical lecture or paper because it is interactive, and thus you can change your tactics midstream and are not committed to one way of solving the problem," Waldschmidt said.

Students will participate in a second simulation later in the semester, Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791, which plunges them into revolutionary Paris.

"A simulation is so meaningful because it allows us to immerse ourselves and learn about democracy from our own experience with it in class," Baker said. "I have a growing appreciation for our democratic process and how hard it is to create and pass legislation." 

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