Federalist Thinking

The Wave, Human Nature, and Our Radical Evolution

Published in 2005, Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution offers multiple perspectives on the future of human kind.  Interviewing world-class thinkers, engineers, and philosophers, the author examines not only our decisions, but our decision making process—for the heart of Garreau’s thesis maintains that human nature changes.

We’ve all wondered whether we’re still part of that process.  Over the years, our species has gradually removed ourselves from the brutality of natural selection.  Americans, especially, have enjoyed long periods without significant culling; so do we yet evolve?  Garreau thinks so.  Physically, we create medicine that can alter our appearances and heal our wounds, while other intellectual constructions seem to grow exponentially.  Can humans maintain control over these creations?  His book’s subtitle alludes to the wisdom it will take to guide this giant: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What It Means to Be Human.  What follows is an argument over what course that path looks like: heaven, hell, or prevail.

The heaven scenario involves advances so great that nanotechnology works invisibly around us, and our bodies regenerate into perpetuity.  Societies, thriving on our highest human emotions, live far from the reptilian R-complex.  Art and music elevate, while education becomes the most important career in the world.  Machines shrink to miniscule, while their capabilities unfold endlessly.

Hell offers the negative: class warfare between the haves and have-nots, pretties versus uglies; technology so advanced that it achieves sentience—then replicates itself.  It’s nothing we haven’t imagined between The Matrix and Blade Runner back to its source at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What is different is that these diametric views are examined and upheld by visionaries who are helping to create it.  While most scientists, computer geniuses, and government-sponsored gurus see their work as seeds planted toward Eden, there are many others who fear dragon teeth being sown.  Bill Joy, the founder of networking giant Sun Microsystems and known in geekdom as the Edison of the Internet, emerges as one interesting story.  Clearly no Luddite, Joy’s vision once anticipated a Star Trekian future, but now glares sidelong at the mechanism of the Empire.  The complexity of this man cannot be summarized here, nor can any of the fascinating characters Garreau profiles.  Suffice it to say that each offers a perspective utterly human in its depth.

More federalist than anti-federalist thought is expanded upon in the next two sections of the book: prevail and transcendence.  Another personality, Martin E. P. Seligman suggests three levels of happiness: the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life.  The pleasant one is all downhill racing: base pleasures and Sushi feelings.  This may be where many Americans find themselves—whether that be through computer porn or Viagra, Cartoon Network or crack.  The good life rises above this.  Referencing Aristotle and Jefferson, Seligman sees something more than existence; he sees a life that is fully lived.  Even better than a life in tune, though, is a life in chorus.  The meaningful life is one in which the instrument of one joins the symphony of all with great elegance and complexity.  The latter view rings as Madisonian; it’s the citizen harmonizing with the Constitution.  Or, through National Academy metaphor, it is Will’s brown box growing up through the center of the spectrum and bearing beautiful rainbow-colored fruit.

If the author leans toward an advancement of humanity, the reader should not be surprised.  After all, the title of the work suggests a continuation, rather than The End.  Garreau makes no hypothesis about the length this evolution will take.  Experts who don’t forecast a technological maelstrom, range from those who think perfection will rise as a tsunami of advancement called The Singularity to those who predict a more gradual tide.

Most importantly, the author goes beyond a catalog of neat inventions to the thought needed to manage such a wave.  How can we control this evolution without the ultimate wipe-out?  As a teacher, I can’t help but imagine the role of a well-rounded education in all of this.  Clearly, literature, history, and communication help us to perceive such changes, while a well-constituted government provides balance to the Constitution’s board.  Can we produce thinkers able to ride the rising swell?  Will we realize that the technical instruction manual of standardized tests can never replace the feel of paddling out, popping up, and surfing?

Garreau’s work suggests that we had better learn quickly.  In a world economy, to remain stoically anti-federalist may just leave Americans as hydrophobic doomsayers gawking at the wall of a world-cleansing flood.  While a ride upon The Wave—one dwarfing both the dawn of industry and the hope of Renaissance—Duuuude, that would be the totality of all that is rad.

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 http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=res_publica

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.


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.

A Federalist Education

Some many days ago, a good countryman you know by the name of Maximus asked a group assembled before him, “what would a Federalist school look like?” His question suffered a long period of silence as those in attendance considered what they knew of Federalism….

Founded on fundamental rights…

A new future imagined through the mechanics of science….

A perspective holistic in nature that looks at a question from all sides in all dimensions….

Sovereignty remains with the people who will make a new and better whole from the sum of its constituent parts….

The good Maximus’s puzzle had no easy solution for the scholars to bandy about that day. Then I remembered wise counsel of a scholar long past. His own words were not my good fortune to know myself but had been translated by Walter Isaacson in his book, Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Two particular thoughts spoke to me when considering Maximus’s question…

“The explanation Einstein himself most often gave for his mental accomplishments was his curiosity. As he put it near the end of his life, ‘I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.’…Curiosity, in Einstein’s case, came not just from a desire to question the mysterious. More important, it came from a childlike sense of marvel that propelled him to question the familiar, those concepts that, as he once said, ‘the ordinary adult never bothers his head about.'”

This curiosity fulfills two of our Federalist requirements. A new reality is imagined through this curiosity and comes into better focus as he tested it with his understanding of scientific understandings. Such an exercise includes looking at the problem from all sides as he questions the familiar.

Do our schools fuel this kind of curiosity? What do teachers do when students question these well-known facts as Einstein suggests? Einstein had ideas about the principles that should guide such an enterprise…

“There was a simple set of formulas that defined Einstein’s outlook. Creativity required being willing not to conform. That required nurturing free minds and free spirits, which in turn required ‘a spirit of tolerance.’ And the underpinning of tolerance was humility–the belief that no one had the right to impose ideas and beliefs on others.’

These formulas provide a set of fundamental rights and express a commitment to the free minds and free spirits of the people. Einstein’s philosophy fulfills the Federalist requirements. We have made progress in our discussion but we haven’t yet discussed what this might look like for our young scholars in today’s schools.

The first Federalist classroom moment that comes to mind involved Thinking Maps, a series of graphic organizers presented to students to build a shared visual vocabulary. While I grumbled about the totalitarian implementation of this system, I could not have imagined what happened once we shared these particular fundamentals as a common language. Students did not see themselves bound to the seven styles originally presented to them. They created their own. They followed the information they wanted to organize to combine elements of the seven original maps or added features of their own invention. The Thinking Maps took on a life of their own. Students were thinking about their thinking, the relationships between the ideas, and how the whole text or concept worked together.

From this example, I would suggest a Federalist education would begin with a primary education focused on building these shared understandings of words, concepts, and guiding principles. At some point, however, the system would have to back away to give the student the opportunity to follow his or her own curiosity and to imagine new combinations of ideas and understandings.

And here we come to my final thought for this evening on the question of what a Federalist school might look like. A Federalist school would provide repeated opportunities for the student to drive.

What Are the Most Federalist Songs?

Something Will said this Summer boomeranged and smacked me into thinking about Federalist songs.

What would make a song distinctively Federalist?  I began to brainstorm characteristics which I thought Federalist in nature: SCIENCE, FUTURE, HOPE, FREE, WORLDLY, REGENERATING, OPEN-MINDED, and so forth.  Many songs are upbeat, and do convey multiple aspects of Federalist thinking.  In fact, I think that when some people think about the spirit of ROCK, they do so with a very Federalist ideal: think Jack Black in School of Rock or Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.

I’m going to withhold my favorites in hopes that we get some traffic going here at the site.  PLEASE (you know you love it when I beg) respond and leave your ideas for the most Federalist songs.  Additionally, feel free to add comments on the nature of Federalism in music, as I tend to focus on lyrics.  (Yeah, I’m tone deaf.)

There can also be submissions for songs that are ANTI-Antifederalist, as I believe “Signs” to be.  You remember that one: “Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign…”, right?

If I can find a way to post music, as I think I might be able to at MySpace, I can do some of that, too.


Federalist Thinking: Karl Iagnemma

As I returned to my too real world, I clicked through my Tivo playlist over breakfast this morning and found Karl Iagnemma on an episode of NOVA Science Now. One of the country’s top scientific inventors and an award winning author, Karl is presented as a man at work in two very different worlds.

Picture a fiction writer and you’re likely to imagine a creative and erratic spirit. Picture a scientist and you see a methodical and analytical thinker. What does it look like when these two worlds work together in the life of Karl Iagnemma and what does this have to do with federalist thinking?

It’s all about the similarities of these not so separate worlds. That imagination fuels the writing process is no surprise. We don’t often think of science, however, as a creative endeavor.

In the 10-minute clip, Karl reveals he approaches each exercise in writing and/or inventing as structured creativity. While leading the team creating robots to explore the surface of Mars, he fills his blank page with proven algorithms and laws of physics. The team’s job is to combine what they know to provide for a reality on the surface of Mars they can only imagine. With so many answers at their fingertips, Karl’s team can never be sure they know what happens next.

In responding to a question about his interest in scientific failures, Karl weaves together creativity, science, conflict and crisis:

I think the heart of all fiction, or almost all fiction, is conflict. As fiction writers, we look for things that aren’t going quite right. It’s Tolstoy’s line about happy families, you know? You can apply that to research. Failed research is what’s interesting.

When you fail at something it often forces you to question your own beliefs, what you thought to be true, and in extreme cases, to question who you think you are. And that makes for interesting fiction. An idea about a scientist in crisis is often the spark for me, and that spark tends to illuminate the story or the novel.

Add this analysis of conflict in fiction to Thoma’s Kuhn’s understanding of crisis in science and you’ll see a Federalist perspective at work. Through structured creativity, Karl Iagnemma is filling the blank pages of his next story and inventing the tools we’ll use to see further into the universe…without ever knowing how the story ends.