The interdisciplinary Honors College curriculum allows students to enroll in intriguing coursework taught by faculty members from a wide range of disciplines. One benefit of the flexibility of the curriculum and course proposal process is that it allows instructors with professional backgrounds outside of academia to develop Honors coursework. John Culhane, Scholar in Residence for the Honors College, has taught special topics Honors courses over several years, bringing rich and broad experiences from his career in law and the corporate world. Among other positions, Culhane served as General Counsel and Executive Vice President at Coca-Cola Enterprises. Along with his professional affiliations, Culhane also contributes a passion for politics, law, and history, as well as a desire to see his students succeed.
Having previously taught CofC Honors courses The Supremes and We The People, Professor Culhane introduces a new course for Spring 2020: Elections Have Consequences. The course, which is described as a combination of American history, politics, the rule of law, and a bit of philosophy, ties in with the Honors College’s goal of preparing students to be scholar citizens. The Honors College sat down with Culhane to learn more about this new advanced studies course offering.
HC: In the past, you have taught Honors College courses related to the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Constitution. What prompted you to design this new course that is centered on the electoral process?
JC: On November 3, 2020, millions of Americans will go to the polls to decide who will be their president and commander-in-chief. They will decide if the Democrats will continue to hold the majority in the House of Representatives and will decide if the Republicans will continue to control the Senate. The elected President in November may have the opportunity to fill one or two seats on the Supreme Court and can appoint hundreds of federal judgeships. Many gubernatorial races will be decided, and congressional districts will be gerrymandered based upon the 2020 Census and the results of congressional elections. Elections do have consequences. As a country, we have not been this politically-divided since the Civil War. What better time to create a new Honors course to discuss presidential political history and the upcoming election?
HC: You have taught coursework and given lectures and presentations to a wide range of audiences. What do you think makes CofC Honors students unique, and what do you enjoy most about working with them?
JC: Of all the audiences I have interacted with over the years, from 14-year-olds to octogenarians, I most enjoy working with our CofC Honors students. They are bright, they love learning, they do their work, and they come to class impassioned and fully prepared. And most importantly, they challenge me and help make me a better teacher.
HC: What professional and/or personal experiences do you plan to draw upon as you determine course content and guide course discussions?
JC: Early on I taught high school juniors and seniors while attending law school. I then worked as a trial lawyer learning how to build credible legal arguments from either side of an issue. I learned how to be an effective speaker before the court. I then ventured into the corporate world rising to the position of General Counsel and Executive Vice President of one of the largest multi-national publicly traded U.S. corporations. During that time, I lived in London and traveled across Europe representing my corporate client. On my retirement from corporate law, I began teaching at the Honors College and, because I live in England for six months a year, I began guest lecturing at Eton College in England this past summer.
I mention these experiences because I bring my lifelong interest in history, politics and the law as well as my experience as a teacher and international businessman to the classroom. My mission is to help my students better understand and appreciate who they are and what they may want to do after graduation. I prepare them to succeed in a competitive world. Most of my students either want to know more about government or have an interest in becoming lawyers. My job is to not only help them better understand how our government works (or doesn’t), but also how to take an issue apart and argue both sides while getting on their feet and making a convincing argument.
HC: How would you describe the classroom atmosphere in the Honors courses you teach?
JC: A table of students who share a common goal of learning, sharing ideas, discussing and debating — feeling more confident in themselves, being respectful to those who have a different opinion and having a sense of how they might make a positive difference in the world, no matter their career choice.
HC: Scholar citizens are committed to pursuing academic excellence while also engaging real-world issues. How does your course equip CofC Honors students to become scholar citizens?
JC: During the Constitution Convention of 1787, the Founders were reluctant to give a right to vote to the population at large. They were convinced that most early Americans were poorly educated, misinformed, and easily misled. Hopefully, we have largely solved the concerns of our Founders, but the reality in 2020 is that millions of Americans have grown apathetic to their right to vote. Some 90 million eligible voters failed to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Unfortunately, many Americans have concluded that our politicians are largely guided by self-interest and put getting reelected above what is best for their constituency and their country. The outcome of my class is to arouse a spirit of patriotism and a love of learning through history.
HC: With the 2020 presidential election coming up, what issues do you hope that this course will force students to think critically about?
JC: This course speaks to many of the issues and historical experiences that will help mold scholar citizens. The Trump administration is considered by many to be a threat to our democratic institutions, but at the same time,millions of Americans feel strongly that President Trump has delivered on his campaign promises and should be reelected. As my students measure the man and his administration and the candidates who oppose him, we will do the research to support both sides of the divisive argument. As scholar citizens, we must do our best to truly understand and appreciate the multiple sides to every issue and look for ways that we can once again function within our Constitution.
HONS 390: Elections Have Consequences is an Advanced Studies course within the Honors College curriculum. A full listing of Spring 2020 Honors College courses is available here on the CofC Honors Hub.