constitutional thinking

National Academy 2017: Questions, Answers and More Questions

In today’s political forum, no one is looking to start another argument. It’s still true, however, that a good argument can make all the difference in what happens next.

Good arguments require connecting ideas. Listening to one another and thinking through a logical framework together. When we avoid arguing reasonably together, we also turn away the connectedness and empathy it cultivates.

Sadly, Election 2016 has us all imagining partisan battle stations with perfectly calibrated talking points. One good argument could bridge the gap between fighting one another and thinking together. Good arguments rely on good questions. One good question could prove to be an invitation to connect rather than divide.

Occidental’s Greek Theater, photo by Keith Gall

This year’s National Academy for Civics and Government started with the question, “What are you for?” The Academy is best understood as a three-week exploration into what it means to take constitutional science seriously and then to apply to understanding how the American system came to be. What is the United States of America for? The twenty-one Citizen-Scholars who convened at Occidental College this summer had written their own answers when applying for the Academy. At our first session, they each had the option of recalling what they had written previously or to submit a new answer in the moment.

The usual suspect of fake news, limited political knowledge and extreme partisanship played leading roles in the questions that appeared alongside their FOR statements. These Citizen-Scholars devoted nearly half their summer to a serious course of study because they are FOR truth, engaged citizens, media literacy and political leadership. After these introductions, Professor Will Harris launched into the Academy’s opening session with reading the Declaration of Independence as a clear statement of a people who are FOR good government.

Final Presentations: Finding Answers and New Questions

With renewed authority, the scholars of the National Academy presented their own “findings” of at the end of the institute. A proposal for a new national anthem wove together the work of Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, John Locke and Cicero and found harmony in between the melodies of “This Little Light of Mine,” “Fight the Power, “ and “Change is Going to Come.” Another team took Madison’s idea of revising and amending the U.S. Constitution (as opposed to adding another item to a list of amendments at the end of the document). The makeover yielded an Article IV that addressed a specific understanding of U.S. citizenship. Another panel of scholars gave the document the color treatment, applying the system Madison outlines in Federalist 37 for reviewing the proposed government. They assigned each category of review its own color and then analyzed the “color signature” of each article.

Photo from L.A.’s Natural History Museum (by Keith Gall)

As the complexity of the American system came into full view, one team of scholars traced the concept of equality through time, from Cicero and Aristotle to Locke, Jefferson, and the 14th amendment. They considered how the definition and different aspects of the concept combined to identify the purpose of government and define its role in society. The final panel of citizen-scholars took on the task of writing a new pledge, a credal affirmation, that would focus on promoting citizenship rather than saluting a symbol. They called their proposal a promise rather than a pledge and promoted it as an invitation to learn more about the founding documents it referenced and the commitments they represent.

The unsettled world had not grown any more quiet during the three weeks of the National Academy. The world still managed to look different to he citizen-scholars who had worked together to puzzle over hard questions. They returned to their own institutions of higher learning with new questions like how to create an “inter-text” dialogue where individuals, “debate the ideas of the texts using reason and empathy” and “what are the ways in which today’s environment might ultimately be good for Democracy and Constitutional Government?”

Questions of fatigue and despair had given way to questions with possibilities. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.

The Citizen-Scholars of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government

The citizen-scholars (and civic educators) of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government are:

Melissa Ackerman, Las Vegas, NV

Victoria Allen, Greensboro, NC

Scott Arronowitz, Keene, NH

Janet Bordelon, Palo Alto, CA

Angie Cosimano, Virginia Beach, VA

Amrita Dani, Boston, MA

Analia Escamilla, Salinas, CA

Cheryl Fleming, Brooklyn, NY

Adam Horos, Grand Rapids, MI

Michael Jackson, Swartz Creek, MI

Dennis Kass, Chicago, IL

Ross Ketchum, Dubois, WY

Erik Korling, Sacramento, CA

Amy Medlock-Greene, Irmo, SC

Tyler Nice, Springfield, OR

Andrew Orzel, Alexandria, VA

Dirk Schexnaydre, Geismar, LA

Jeanne Schierstedt, Racine, WI

Luke Schlehuber, Miami, FL

Emily Stout, Raleigh, NC

Steven Wang, Gainesville, GA

Christine Wilson, Washington, D.C.

Kennedy’s Purple Prose


A school based on Constitutional Citizenship

Those of you at the second week of James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship at Montpelier may have heard about my school and our work with Professor Harris. Our charter high school was created by a group of parents in 1998 with a mission to teach citizenship. From the beginning we tried to fulfill this mission by incorportaing lots of civic education and community service into our curriculum as well as trying to think about the skills and dispositions of a good citizen that we wanted to foster in our students. However, our efforts felt disparate and we felt as if we lacked the philisophical grounding for what we were doing as a school.

Then, I attended a weekend seminar at Montpelier and was introduced to Res Publica: An International Framework for Education in a Democracy. Found online at

My faculty studied portions of this document. Then we met at a retreat at Montpelier, heard from Professor Harris, and finally with all of that in mind, we got to work. We sat small groups of folks in different departments and tried to discover the commonalities in our approaches to teaching, to working with students, and to our disciplines. What we found was that there were clear principles guiding what we did as a school. Some of the principles we felt we lived up to, others we aspired to, but these principles (which we formed into a kind of Constitution) guided our school and were the philisophical basis for Constitutional citizenship mission.

So, here is our Constitution

Citizenship Preamble and Principles

We, of RCHS, intend to cultivate the understanding and practices that sustain individual self-determination and community self-government.  We have adopted the following principles in order to ensure that all who pass through our halls can imagine, create, and govern a more perfect world.


We believe:


That a foundation of knowledge and ethics must precede all intellectual inquiry;


That if we

encourage self-awareness

build and maintain local communities

develop an awareness of our membership in ever larger communities

engage in common enterprises with people who are different

accommodate and address conflict and change

facilitate problem solving

foster balance and moderation in life

and take ownership and responsibility for learning


We will become good citizens.

We continue to work to use this document as a guide for our school and our programs. Lately, that has meant thinking about how to communicate these ideas to new faculty, to our students, and to our parents. In addition we struggled with developing a principle that communicated the ideas of educating makers and not just users. We ultimately felt as if that idea was just below the surface in many of these principles, but still aren’t sure how to make that idea come alive in just a phrase (especially for an audience unfamilier with Professor Harris’ ideas about constitutional citizenship).

I would love to hear your thoughts about our work and its applicability to your schools.


On Theory, Poetry, and the American Constitution

I think to appreciate or even tolerate this post you have to accept at face value Will Harris’s assertion that Americans “live in a theory.” The theory is derived from the Constitution and includes such central organizing ideas as innovation, wholeness, inquiry, optimism, order, deliberation, and covenant to name a small and perhaps unrepresentative subset.

Generally speaking, a theory has the following components:

1. It organizes communication.
2. It organizes ideas.
3. It generates new ideas.
4. It displays the complexities of a problem.
5. It guides investigation.
6. It generates explanations and predictions.

This stuff is nothing new to students of Kuhn or to those who teach and study theory. My brief, amateur exegesis focuses on the first point about organizing communication. The specific type of communication presented below is what I would call “stylized public dialogue,” which I consider any writing, music, or art deliberately offered for public interest or consumption.

In an earlier politicolor post, Stepwinder considered a story by Kurt Vonnegut that had a constitutional theme/idea. Hobbes21 posted the results of his considerable research into popular songs with Federalist and anti-federalist themes.

I modestly build on the efforts of Step and Hobbes21 by offering two poems with constitutional themes. Rather than attempting to analyze the poems myself, I simply offer them to you for possible reflection. Maybe you will want to post a poem with an organizing idea or theme of American constitutional theory. -Mutter-

(1) OPTIMISM as reflected in Whitman’s

“Song of the Open Road”

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading me wherever I choose…

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held such goodness….

(2) The FEDERALIST MIND in Ammons’


I look for the way
things will turn
out spiraling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper-though
that, too-but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

How I Realized I Was a Federalist (or Christmas in July)

Once upon a time, there was a beast. He chose to live on the outskirts of society; he chose to let his anger fester. He watched and he boiled as the people lived their lives, free and happy. One day, however, the people’s joy stabbed him so fiercely that he decided to strike back. He terrorized the people: he invaded their sanctity and tried to destroy their world.

What does the paragraph describe..? Osama bin Laden? A gangbanger? A bullied student who phones in a threat?

Each fits.

What’s crucial, though, is what happened next…

The people, realizing that they’d been violated, did not call for revenge. They didn’t arm the rocket-launchers, strap on the bandoliers, or place daggers between their teeth. They came together, and they sang.

Although told in a much plainer style, you may recognize the plot from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, a book which holds a new place for me since the National Academy.

Rewind a few weeks. Drowning in Hobbes, yet still asphyxiated by Aristotle, the notion of Seuss crept into my swirling consciousness. Compelled (and newly-determined to be accurate to the text), I made my way to the Barnes & Noble in Marina Del Rey. It was a few days before the madness of Harry Potter 7. And July. As I slid the decidedly yule tale across the counter, I half-expected a smart-assed comment; but, instead, the bookseller urged me to look into Horton Hears a Who: her own personal fave. I assured her I would, but for now this was what I needed. Like oxygen.

I opened the text, and here we were: humans drawn as beasts. And there wasn’t much to separate the Grinch from the Whos other than the frown: he was clearly one of us. Here was Hobbes; here was the reality of what we could become. For, the Grinch has become a What. He’s lost his identity, his place of belonging amongst the Whos. He’s a creature without a country.

Now, I’m the first person to call for justice. I want to see wrong-doers put in their rightful place. And I get damn pissed off when Cindy-Lou Who gets her Seusscycle ripped off. However, I also realize that punishing someone doesn’t solve any problems: the Grinches of our people remain outside.

Those who commit serious offenses need to be brought to trial. But what of those who can be helped? What about the everyday decisions that I make: what are their consequences, their causes?

Surely, there’s a lesson in Seuss’s story. When disaster strikes, the people come together. They sing. And what, do you imagine, is in that song?

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