In Spring 2017, my Religion in America course surveyed American religious history, pausing to debate “Is America a Christian nation?” These in-class debates replaced traditional exams as the primary method of assessment. The purpose of these assignments were to develop students’ critical and historical thinking through active, lively debate.
By debating the past, students synthesized primary and secondary sources, crafting their own historical narrative. In the spirit of debate, students not only presented their positions but also responded to challenges by standing for a brief cross-examination from the class and reacted to critiques by offering a rebuttal of the other ideas presented.
Just like debates in public life, these in-class debates were evaluated and judged by the audience. After all cases and rebuttals had been made, the audience deliberated the winner by caucusing for the side of their choice. The position with the most people caucusing for it wins the evening’s debate and bragging rights.
Whether as a debater or audience member, students gained experience arguing with peers in a constructive and productive way that reflects the democratic experience experienced every four years in Iowa.