Constitutional Thinking Requires Constitutional Teaching

At the National Academy today, Kevin Fox presented his thoughts on his own constitutional thinking and teaching. In the Academy tradition, his inquiry started with, “What is it?”. His answers included…



Creative constructive imaginative

Present on-going

Whole ordered (not orderly)

Scientific systematic experimental

Balanced (between extremes)

Inclusive (of the parts and the whole)

Serious (treat ideas seriously)

Complex (surplus of mind)

Teaching beyond the test

Purpose driven

Problem generating & solving

With a quick wit, he concluded this line of thought with a simple paraphrase of James Bradley Thayer’s doctrine of constitutional interpretation, “Let them hurt. Make them feel it.” We’re convinced, however, that it doesn’t have to hurt! We can work together to craft classrooms to promote constitutional thinking.

As an example of constitutional thinking and teaching, Kevin shared an activity he uses in his classroom to confront the misunderstanding of Locke’s theory that it requires us to give up our rights to be protected by the government. He gave us each a blank piece of paper and asked us to designate a two-inch margin by drawing a dotted line down the length of the page. We then designated three separate sections of the paper by writing “LEGISLATIVE,” “EXECUTIVE,” and “LEGISLATIVE” across the page. It’s important that these headings cross the dotted line and use part of the reserved margin. We then wrote our rights of “LIFE,” “LIBERTY,” and “ESTATE” between the previous headings. This time it was important to not use the reserved margin.

We then consented to our contract of government by tearing that two-inch margin from the page and contributing it to the “government pot” Kevin provided. A portion of the legislative, executive, and judicial power from each of us was contributed to the government while we each retained the remaining powers and our rights. This activity effectively confronted the misunderstanding Kevin had targeted, but there was a new problem. We each still had some of our executive and judicial power in reserve! What a model of constitutional teaching! Just like constitution making, our newest solutions provide even newer problems.

With this as our model, the 2008 National Academy took time to consider how to improve on this model or how to carry a central concept from the past thre weeks back to their classrooms. Ideas included Play-doh Leviathans and lots of boxes! A previous post on Politicolor also asked us all to consider constitutional teaching through the words of the Preamble. Let’s share those ideas…

Please use the comments below to share your ideas as a  result of today’s activity. Alumni, you can join the effort by sharing your stories of what you were able to include in your classroom this past year.

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  • puckermom says:

    Would it be possible to post a diagram of the model described? I’m having trouble visualizing it.


  • hobbes21 says:

    Hey, I’m psyched on Play-doh Leviathans made up of hundreds of lil’ individuals–way cool!

    I think I can visualize the exercise, but a diagram would help. Is the model anti-federalist when we’re left holding some of our executive/ judicial power in reserve..? Are there other conclusions?

    I’m also looking forward to hearing from this year’s crop of Nat’cademians! What do y’all think about the exercise and KFox’s ideas on constitutional thinking?

    [Remember, don’t let this site intimidate. 🙂 I spout off all the time, perfectly willing to make a fool of myself for the sake of growing and understanding. I was the kid in the last year’s class who wanted to puke because everyone else seemed WAAAAAAY smarter than me! Now, I cherish the minds who visit here.]

  • stepwinder says:

    As much as I love you all, I’m not creating a diagram of this. We all followed Kevin’s instructions and sketched it out on a piece of paper. I’ll try a numbered list. Perhaps KFox will check in and give you better instructions soon!

    You need one sheet of letter-sized paper…

    1. With the 8 1/2″ edge providing the top and bottom of the page, draw a dotted line from the top to the bottom of the page to delineate a “reserved” two-inch margin on either side.

    2. Draw two horizontal lines across the page so it is divided into three sections.

    3. Label those three sections, “LEGISLATIVE,” “EXECUTIVE,” and “JUDICIAL” with part of your heading crossing your dotted line and using the reserved margin.

    4. In between those headings, add your rights, “Life,” “Liberty,” and “Estate” but do not use any portion of your reserved margin.

    5. Now, fold the paper along the line delineating your reserved margin and tear the margin from your paper, top to bottom.

    6. Contribute this two-inch strip containing a portion of your legislative, executive, and judicial powers to the “government pot.”

    7. You continue to have your remaining powers and all of your rights.

    The idea is…

    If you’ve written your headings of the three powers across the reserved margin, that indicates that you’re contributing some portion of those powers to the government. By protecting the margin when you add the rights to the page, you keep all of those and don’t surrender a bit of those rights when you contributing your powers to institute government.

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