My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 2 of 3)

When last we met, I was explaining my dread, as I contemplated using Will’s boxes with my 4th-6th classroom.  Here was this rich, layered theory, which I still hadn’t mastered; yet, the politicolors had given dimension to the founding, I’d never before imagined.  Could I bring them to life?

It was understood that I had a looooong way to even near Will’s grasp.  After all, I’d still look back at photos of the concept maps and ponder the meanings of words written in the corners of the boxes or lines that could sometimes be dotted, and I’d wish for a National Academy 2.0.  However, I easily recalled Will’s self-effacing persona: one that was not just a style, but his genuine self.  He was always open with our crew, explaining that he was still discovering new meaning here, that our questions were important to the illumination.  And that was a comfort to me: that I didn’t need to know everything to open the pack of multi-colored Expos that would paint our white board.

A few lessons into the We the People curriculum, I had introduced the philosophers: Cicero, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Madison.  Knowing they were a well-educated assembly of Framers, the students understood that the Constitution had not appeared out of thin air.  It helped that I teach across curricula: Cicero could be connected to math and the laws of physics, and Aristotle’s biology background could be easily referenced with our studies of classification.  I guess my grasp of Cicero is a bit weak, because the kids latched on to the “body politic” notion far more tightly than the music of the spheres.  Perhaps it was because we had been using the microscope that week, for they related well to the idea of citizens as cells and their functions as differentiation.  The students ran with one of the last Aristotelian nuggets I offered up: “One who is not in the polity, must be a beast or a god.”

One student alluded to the notion that no man is an island; while several realized that one would have to be almost extra-terrestrial to not need others, if not a “deranged, crazy guy”.

This provided a perfect segue to my next lessons on Thomas Hobbes.  For me, Hobbes had been the most difficult philosopher to access, yet ultimately the most rewarding.  For my Nat’cademy project, I’d even chosen one of his pages for my writing assignment.  I wanted so dearly for the students to know him for more than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”.  Indeed, they would have to, for Hobbes was represented by the red box.  The kids needed to understand the idea of what it meant to be a people.

As providence runs, we were heading into the last week of school before the holiday break.  Here was my chance to access Hobbes just as I had.  For in the July sun of Loyola Marymount, my unveiling of the red box: sprung from Will’s lectures, then rose with the provocation of  preceptor break-out sessions, only to finally land firmly in the sagacious realm of… Dr.Seuss.

Improbably, in the dead of summer, I found myself in Marina Del Rey purchasing a copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


That night was to be another unveiling, Rowling’s last Harry Potter book, and Barnes & Noble was abuzz.  The sales clerk looked a bit sidelong at me as I slid the book across the counter.  I expected to hear some smart Alec response along the lines of really early gift shopping?!

But instead, she proceeded to tell me how her favorite tale hands-down was Horton Hears a Who.  (Another text with great connections to the boxes, I’ve just realized.)  I smiled and insisted I needed this one.  I wasn’t sure, but I had a feeling that they didn’t have a copy of it at the University’s library.

Fast forward a year and half, and across the country, to Michigan.  Well, once I’d finished reading the story to my students, they were out of their seats trying to identify the philosophy in it.  They saw Aristotle’s beast, with Whoville as a polity.  They explored the Whos as a people.  They connected the Grinch to Hobbes, as he was never really out of the community.  And, in a moment of sublime, one student linked the outsider to the homeless we’d seen in Detroit on a recent trip to St. Anne’s.

There have been many memories so far this year.  One can never prioritize them, but there is a fourth grade girl that’s just amazing me.  I’ll call her S. here.  The thing about S. is that she’s totally into this stuff, so much so that she goes home and writes poems about it.  And she’s got a great theoretical mind.  One of the most powerful examples to date came when we studied the early philosophers and their notions that there could be many successful ways in which to rule effectively.  I’m mostly referring to Arsitotle’s idea of the Good King, Aristocracy, or Democracy.  After contrasting each with its negative, S. just kind of blurted out, “Why not mix them?”

Yeah.  That’s what I’m talking about.

My other favorite S. moment to date came when she raised her hand and asked, “What do you think James Madison would think of this, if he were here?”

I smiled, then added, “I think he is.”

As the class cracked up, she inquired, “What, his ghost is here, like, sitting next to me or something?”

Waiting for the giggles to subside, I explained, “Not his ghost, his spirit.”

It was the perfect plant for my already envisioned denouement.  On the last day of Civics, I intend to conclude with the end of James Madison’s life.  It is said that upon his deathbed, Madison’s last words indicated that his passing was “nothing more than a change of mind.”

TOMORROW: Conclusions and Questions   notes-2

How the Hobbes Stole Christmas

Looking for a way to make Thomas Hobbes more to your students than life as “nasty, brutish, and short”?  Today, I shared with my 4th-6th graders Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

You’ve no doubt seen the Chuck Jones animated version, but I’m going to visit the original text.  As the story goes, the Grinch grinds out both his years and teeth, high up in a mountain cave.  He hates Christmas, for “No one knows quite the reason,” but most likely it is because “his heart was two sizes too small.”

The people down below are the Whos, and they love to celebrate and they love to sing.  Which drives the Grinch bonkers.  He’s got to stop it, so he plots to destroy their holiday with a “WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!”  He’s going to take out Christmas and ruin everyone’s life.  He’s going to splatter his wicked heart across the canvas of Whoville and blacken their light.

In devious succession, we see just how abhorrent the Grinch can be.  He goes so far as to steal from little Cindy-Lou Who and pilfers so much that even the crumbs left behind are too small for Who mouses.

Then there’s the moment in which the Grinch waits for the terror.  He listens for the peal of agony his black dawn will raze.  And if we look closely enough at his gnarled face, we see that the Grinch is one of them; but he’s been twisted so far that he has become a What.  A What living in a state of nature, as Aristotle’s beast; a What anticipating fire and brimstone’s consumption of Whoville.

Here’s where the multi-dimensional Hobbes comes in.  Because when one makes the deep connection (never underestimate Seuss’s genius) that Grinch is part of their people, and he’s on the outside, then we can see this so clearly as Red Box stuff.  (For extra benefit, the book’s only color is, indeed, red…leading me to believe that Will just may have a time machine hidden somewhere, dreamed up by one of his many federalist friends.)

This tale is about a people and someone on the outside, yet still within the covenant.  He’s a monster needing to discover his Whoness in order to have any chance of ever stepping back into the community.

Of course, in the end, he does just that.  But through a lesson we all could learn, he’s not pulled in; he has to make that choice.  The people do not hunt him down, because they are better than that.  They are beyond the reproach of materialism, above vengeance, and they come together to sing.

[Personal aside: The song.  The song we should have sung after 9/11.  The reminder of Who we are.  The recollection and affirmation that we are Whos, not Whats.  My heart feels the wounds of Abu Ghraib and knows that a crucial moment was lost in leadership too unlearned to know anything but “going cowboy”.  I don’t wish to diminish 9/11 or suggest that a mass-murderer should be accepted into our people, but I now ache every time I reread this story.]

The Whos sing, and the Grinch’s heart grows.  Triumphantly (not heroically, mind you), he rides down from the mountain, returning not only the town’s gifts to the Whos, but his self as well.

The philosopher tells us that anyone on the outside is still part of the people, and that his disenfrachisement is in part a failure of the whole.  With the poetry of our Hobbesian Preamble, We ideally strive for a more perfect union, welcoming the Whats.

And the book’s glorious final page shows the Grinch himself has conquered the anger that set him out.  Seated next to Cindy Lou Who, he carves the roast, which could very well be the darkness from his soul.  For, contrary to what the Eagles might’ve sung in “Hotel California”, you can stab it with a steely knife, and you just can kill the beast.

Happy Holidays, Folks.

Duty Bound to Civic Education

With a NY Times op-ed titled “The War as We Saw It,” a group of infantrymen and non-commissioned officers from the 82nd Airborne Division answered a different call to duty last week. As Washington gears up for a series of progress reports on Iraq, this group of servicemen offer their own voice of experience…

Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.

Any of us who made it through Hobbes’s first book can’t miss the mechanism of beginning with definitions. We recognize the tone of skepticism and the vehicle of making your case to the public too. This particular expression of skepticism makes way for a much more comprehensive discussion of the politics and people of Iraq and provides a vehicle for us to consider who we are or want to be as well.

There’s power in this act of civic duty that we shouldn’t let the debate over Iraq overshadow.

Much of our civic education curriculum emphasizes a responsibility to speak out and points to colorful protests in important places. It can be difficult for students to imagine themselves in such a situation. They often respond to this suggested responsibility with an argument that speaking out hardly matters when no one is listening. I know many adults who have accepted that conclusion as fact too…maybe even a few of us.

These servicemen, however, chose to make their case to the American public through the newspaper. They must have believed someone would hear them and somewhere it would make a difference. In doing so, they utilize arguments on themes you’ll recognize from our discussions at the National Academy…

What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists, Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes.

We know any sense of society is fragile with so many people “outside the box.” I don’t know how you’d describe the presumed relationship between American forces and the Iraqi people but consider applying what we know about contract-making to statements like these found throughout the article…

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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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