Awaiting a private question-and-answer session with national political commentator Charles Krauthammer, over 100 undergraduate Ashbrook Scholars clad in business attire settled into semi-circular rows of chairs in the compact, book-and-photo-lined meeting space of the Ashbrook Center. The room buzzed with excitement. Dr. Peter Schramm paced the narrow circle of carpet between the podium and the encircling chairs, affectionately jibing at students displaying unusual sartorial splendor, then reminding Scholars to take full advantage of the opportunity awaiting them. “Be respectful, of course, but ask any question you want. This is your chance to probe the thinking of a top-notch editorialist who wrestles with political issues every day.”
When Krauthammer arrived, he dispensed with a prepared speech, inviting students to open the discussion. They were ready. Some prepared queries based on Krauthammer’s recent opinion pieces; others, picking up on the unusual biography of a commentator who studied and practiced psychiatric medicine, wanted to know what inspired him to switch careers. Others, looking for insight into his craft, asked about his writing process.
“I come from a little town in the middle of nowhere,” said John Case, a junior from Creston, Ohio, “and I’m sitting there listening to a commentator known across the nation. But it is not really intimidating.” Rather, it’s an experience that concentrates the mind: “You feel you should formulate your thoughts better, to ask the speaker the hard questions; you can tell his mind is used to addressing hard problems, so you want to push him farther.” Students who found the response to their questions less than complete asked follow-up questions, and soon there was a conversation going.
By the time of the annual Memorial Dinner in May, even the freshman Ashbrook Scholars are practiced in the art of pointed, tough questioning. “Especially this last year’s freshman class,” comments junior Amber Eastridge. “They are eager to learn,” she says admiringly, noting that what gives an Ashbrook Scholar the confidence to engage a nationally-known figure in dialogue is “curiosity.”
Ashbrook Scholars want to test issues explored in class from a historical or theoretical perspective against a speaker’s real-world knowledge. Case was particularly impressed by Krauthammer’s ability to “maintain consistent principles” while analyzing current political issues.
Other students wanted to know how Krauthammer turned a fascination with politics into a career, or how he deals with the challenges that career entails. Eastridge appreciated Krauthammer’s frank description of his writing method. “He doesn’t like staring at a blank page, so he dictates his writing as he begins,” using a computer program that translates his recorded speech into text on the screen. “That helps him get around writer’s block. As a college student, I struggle with how to start when I write, so it was nice to know that he deals with the same problem, and this is how he manages it.”
Many Scholars who enroll in the Ashbrook program were, like sophomore Kelly Rantilla, first intrigued by a brochure in the mail showing photos of major speakers, “from former Presidents to famous political commentators and journalists.” Participating in the program, they learn they can engage such prominent figures directly, relying on their own scholarly preparation and a sincere desire to learn. Discovering this, they prepare for the future. “In whatever career I go into,” says Case, “I’ll have to share the room with colleagues or supervisors who are more powerful and knowledgeable. Instead of being intimidated, I’ll be able to work with them at full capacity”— all the while continuing to learn.