Montpelier

Seeing America

The second week at Montpelier concluded Friday with this question… What do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

As the American public celebrates independence through fireworks, BBQ and pool parties, the 80 teachers who studied constitutional citizenship at Madison’s Montpelier know we must keep the future as well as the past in our mind’s eye. There’s no reason to skip the fireworks but let’s consider what that particular moment in time reveals to us about our present and our future. If America is an idea rather than a place, it’s essential that we share our ideas about what America is or could be.

It’s that mission that led to our last assignment for our afternoon discussion. We focused on our work as teachers and the role of citizens and elected representatives as constitutional officers, and Jim LeCain shared a quote he thought defined our mission:

Teach the [Constitution’s] principles, teach them to your children, speak of them when sitting in your home, speak of them when walking by the way, when lying down and when rising up, write them upon the doorplate of your home and upon your gates.

–John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution

–Quoted by Chief Justice Warren Burger at the 200th anniversary celebration

The quote resonates with the power of the words in Deuteronomy beginning with 6:5:

Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And Will couldn’t stop there. If you didn’t hear the cadence of the words in Deuteronomy when you read the quote, you might have remembered a folk anthem instead. Remember these lyrics from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Teach Your Children”…

You, who are on the road
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so, become yourself
Because the past
Is just a goodbye.

Teach, your children well
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s
The one you’ll know by.
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would die
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

With such an important task at hand, what do you SEE when you say AMERICA?

The American People and an Incredible Machine

With gadget fans across the country talking about the new 3G iPhone, it’s hard to argue about the innovative spirit of the American people. It’s a fact. We love our machines whether they’re speeding down the highways or probing the surface of Mars.

I wonder, however, if there’s more to this particular characteristic of the American people. Imagine you have just encountered the world’s greatest invention, what do you want to know about it?

What does it do?

How does it work?

Perhaps, where did the idea came from?

Now imagine the world’s greatest invention is the federal constitution proposed by James Madison. It may have looked like a Rube Goldberg machine to the AntiFederalists, unnecessarily complicated with too many opportunities for something to go wrong. As they review the many components of the system, the answer to “what does it do?” seems more and more obscure. The banner at the top of the Rube Goldberg page might even serve as a powerful AntiFederalist argument:

Imagine an AntiFederalist staring at this contraption. We know what we want it to do. We want it to protect our independence and protect our liberty. We know how to do this. We have several simple machines in our state constitutions doing exactly this. Why make it so complicated? It’s too much work and leaves the whole endeavor vulnerable with each new level of detail. It doesn’t have to be this hard!

Now, back to imagining the greatest invention in the world, would you be satisfied in simply knowing what it does? What almost always happens next? Someone makes a newer and better version. It is, after all, the iPhone 2.0 we’re all talking about and tech news regularly celebrates the next “iPhone killer.”

When acquainting ourselves with a new machine, few of us are ever satisfied with simply knowing what it does. We start there but next ask how it works and often inquire about the origin of the idea itself. We seek the “maker’s knowledge” Will referred to as he opened this week’s NEH seminar at Montpelier. The operating instructions often aren’t enough to satisfy our American ingenuity.

I’m thinking of a friend’s son who “pimped” his ride. An owner’s manual illustrating how to shift gears, turn dials, and light signals wasn’t useful for long. The Ford Explorer his parents had given him needed several improvements before he was willing to park it in the high school parking lot! He soon spent countless hours entangled in the car’s wiring, digging through the components of the engine, and super-sizing its performance in every way imaginable. If we know how an invention works and how it is constructed to do what it does, we have a system for evaluating its performance as well as a platform to improve upon it.

The American people aren’t simply interested in the invention. They’re a people interested in the ongoing progress of innovation and a people who believe we can all be a part of designing the next big thing.