Democracy Core Sequence

Social Sciences Core Sequence:

Democracy: Equality, Liberty, and the Dilemmas of Self-Government

In Autumn 2021, we began offering a new three-course sequence within UChicago’s Core curriculum: “Democracy: Equality, Liberty, and the Dilemmas of Self-Government.” This sequence brings democratic questions back into the center of the Social Sciences Core, where they once enjoyed a prominent place. Throughout the sequence, faculty members will strive to bring empirical evidence and theoretical or philosophical frameworks into conversation, encouraging students to learn for themselves how an analytical question may be posed, and how a coherent and well-grounded answer may not only satisfy our curiosity but reframe our initial question. The syllabi for the three courses can be found here.


Prior to the launch of the democracy-themed Core sequence, there were no curricular structures at the University of Chicago that focused on a systematic inquiry into democracy as a distinctive modality of social life, political power, and governance. This absence has prevailed for decades.

Yet that was not always the case. Indeed, the opposite was true in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when the University of Chicago’s Core Curriculum was in its formative stages. The very mission of the Core was forged in response to the crisis of democracy that erupted in the interwar period, climaxed in the Second World War, and continued to fester throughout the Cold War. Driven by an anti-totalitarian urgency that was particularly strong on our campus, the early leaders of the Social Sciences Core sought to recover and renew the wellsprings of the democratic imagination. True to this mission, the opening sentence of The People Shall Judge (1949), the textbook for Social Sciences 1 at the University of Chicago for much of the postwar period, announced: “This book expresses the faith of one American college in the usefulness of liberal education to American democracy… Democracy declares that ‘the people shall judge.’ Liberal education must help the people to judge well.”

This clarion call for an education in democracy rings true today, and thus we introduced the Democracy Core, as well as the Minor in Democracy Studies (which launched in Autumn 2022).

The Democracy Core is the only sequence in the Social Sciences Core that takes up democracy as its central problematic. There are, of course, many classes throughout the undergraduate curriculum that focus on democracy in one way or another. But the Democracy Core is the place to start if you wish to inquire about the origins of self-government; its relationship to society, power, rights, and freedom; and the many conflicts, dilemmas, and internal contradictions that have made the history of democracy so dynamic and unpredictable over the ages—including our own, which is confronting an accelerating democratic crisis on a global scale.

The Democracy Core is also the only sequence of the Social Sciences Core in which historical thought is the central mode of analysis. It combines nicely with legal and institutional analysis, different flavors of social and political theory, and comparative case studies drawn from political science and political sociology.


Autumn: Democracy’s Life and Death

What is a democracy? How are democracies established and maintained? What are their advantages and disadvantages with respect to stability, security, liberty, equality, and justice? Why do democracies decline and die? We address these questions by examining democracies and republics in ancient Europe. We read and discuss primary literary and historiographical texts from, and social scientific analyses of, Athenian democracy and the Roman republic.


Winter: Democracy, Revolutions, and Constitutions

This course is devoted to the historical understanding of the emergence and fragility of democracy, probing sources of change and continuity— revolutionary rupture, constitutional stabilization, and counter-revolutionary reaction. Students will learn firsthand the diverse advantages offered by varied modes of inquiry in the social sciences as practiced by historians, sociologists, political scientists, and theorists of all stripes. We will engage with texts that lend themselves to multiple layers of analysis, including works of philosophy and theory as well as political manifestos, constitutions, and ephemeral arguments that emerged in political correspondence, speeches, or essays in periodicals.


Spring: The Challenge of Modern Democracies

The final quarter of the Democracy core grapples with the possibilities of, and challenges, to democratic government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The readings sustain the concern for close textual analysis and historical inquiry established earlier in the sequence, but introduce systematic attention to the uses of comparison, both over time and across nations.



By the end of the sequence, students will have a deeper understanding of democracy as a kind of social order, cultural world, philosophical proposition, and system of governance. This will equip students for what awaits them—on campus and beyond.