The 2015 National Academy for Civics and Government crossed the finish line in Los Angeles as the summer rolled into its final act for teachers, students and their families. The first day of school is again imminent and the Academy’s alumni are returning to their classrooms with big ideas about how to talk about politics.
After three weeks of relentless reading, provocative learning and sometimes heated debate, alumni leveraged the work of a long summer seminar to present their own answers to some very big questions about our political life together. Panel teams worked together to articulate the tension embedded in competing American paradigms, to design a currency and a creedal affirmation that better fit the U.S. Constitution and to interrogate the nature of liberty itself or democracy as it is lived. An enterprise launched with Cicero’s claim that a tree planted in the mind achieves a certain kind of permanence marked its finale by gazing up at a paradigm created through the inquiry, deliberation and collaboration of a community interested in not only how we teach citizens but in how we understand that role in the first place.
As if to prove this work is in no way wrapped in theory and kept at a distance from “the real world,” NPR recently posed a question about politics and classrooms driven by the research of Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors of The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education emphasized the value of multiple competing views, investigating the context of current events and giving students the chance to do the talking themselves. The work of the National Academy represents a model for this kind of political classroom. A colorized framework of political order animates the Academy and works to generate political questions like those presented at its conclusion, questions that remain open to ongoing inquiry even as we each study and work to finally answer them. Open-ended questions about our shared political order create opportunities to breathe life into a civics curriculum and to resist the gravitational pull of partisan politics.
The National Academy “Writing Project” occurs after the first week of seminars and invites participants to step into a “world-making” text. The proposal requires much more than writing. The activity becomes an act approximating that of classic citizenship as Academicians find themselves “ruling” through a text they once considered so definitive and closed-ended that it ruled them. By re-writing the selected text in three different modes, the authors of this new writing, the Academicians, see the text anew and work to cultivate its power through emphasis, elaboration and visualization. Suddenly there is more to see in these familiar texts.
Unwilling to lose the gravitational pull of Cicero’s work, Shannon mapped out a parallel between On The Laws and Federalist No. 51:
Dana mapped out the relationship Hobbes describes operating between an individual’s passions and reason and the commonwealth those attributes make possible:
With an entire library of political thought now built in the mind, Academy conversations in the last week shifted to questions of constitutional interpretation and the latest headlines. What does the debate over the American flag salute sound like from a perspective focused on maintaining the cohesiveness of the American people? From a perspective concerned for the natural rights of an individual and his conscious thought? What understanding of the government’s proper domain is necessary to lobby for legislation about marriage equality, abortion or marijuana legalization? These questions were no longer the domain of partisan policy making but were conduits to an interrogation of the multiple competing viewpoints on the very question of what it means to be a self-governing people..
The complexities of self-government came into view through those final conversations and were well-represented in the presentations on that last day too. A deep dig into the understanding of liberty within each text of political thought yielded a definition that retained at least two possibilities:
An inquiry into the appropriateness of our current pledge, led one panel to propose two separate constitutional creeds, one for children and one for adults. The team believed connecting the individual to the constitutional order in a meaningful way required addressing different developmental capacities:
A political classroom designed to pursue open questions rather than a partisan one delivering stale tropes is not an easy prescription but it is an accessible one. With the conclusion of this year’s National Academy, there are another 24 civic leaders returning to the classroom better equipped than ever to bring politics back into the classroom in the most meaningful ways.