National Academy for Civics and Government

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.

Civic Perspective and the Cosmos

“‘Come!’ said Africanus, ‘how long will your mind be chained to the Earth?'”

Before setting out for Los Angeles, the scholars invited to the National Academy for Civics in Government read the Dream of Scipio. It’s about finding perspective. Where you look for answers shapes what you believe you know about the question.  Those chains can tie us down to the wrong question.

In a previous post, we turned to a contemporary space traveler to emphasize the point. From astronaut Michael Collins’s 1974 book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journey:

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say,100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified facade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment.

An update from this year’s National Academy is in the works. It’s all about how we see and what we know. It’s a three-week adventure of cosmic proportions.

Editor’s Note: November 2016 and Finding the Way Forward for Civic Education

Returning to “online news” with a fair measure of caution, I read a suggestion to “find solace in your tribe,” and I knew exactly who I needed to talk to in the days ahead. I have always counted a particular network of civic educators as one of the priceless assets of my career. Failing to put a value on it, however, puts it at risk of the same calculation that has allowed STEM education to push civics out of classrooms. All signs indicate that our communities might be more at risk than ever.

We need civics. It’s time we pull together, assess the strength of our work and put our weight into constructive opposition. Here’s what I think we can do together.

Civic Education as Our North Star

Like you, I spent this week wading through “What Do We Do Next? posts. My momentum for civic work hadn’t just disappeared, it had capsized. I recognized the frustration too. Like my fellow civic educators, I have watched Civic Education lose class time to the push for more math, science and engineering. STEM Education advocates point to a list of careers with higher than average salaries and proceed as though cutting civics to add more STEM is a matter of simple math. We have all shaken our heads wondering what it would take to convince people that living well in community with one another is an essential pursuit with a value that reaches beyond these calculations of lifetime earnings potential. This knowldge of living well together shapes that potential for all of us even if our economists have yet to develop a model for it.

When I felt like I had managed to read the whole Internet’s take on what to do next, it was a local activist’s post that pointed me to my tribe and marked out the way forward. Matt wrote:

Find your north star. Be inspired. Work towards that inspiration and keep that focus. Are you inspired by voter engagement? Do that. What are your goals? If you figure that piece out, outcomes like an election only reinforce your work or give you clarity to refine your tactics.

The Tribe in blue (sometimes National Academy alumni are spotted wearing matching shirts)

This is where I want help from the tribe. We have a network of civic educators scattered across the country who have all shared the experience of the Center for Civic Education’s National Academy for Civics and Government. We have other educators, learning professionals and community members who understand our quest and want to help. We have old friends with many conversations behind them and new allies joining us for the work ahead. The power of this tribe is in the combination of our perspectives. I could gather thought-provoking conversations about what to do next, one after another, and keep myself busy for days. In the end, the potential of every conversation would be limited to the two people who had heard it. I’m not looking for busy work. I’m looking for momentum to make Civic Education a guiding star in the days ahead.

The debate about whether or not we need civics is absurd. Consensus around its necessity grows with each new headlines and the talking points stack up. At the same time, we’re being enlisted to promote even smaller ideas of what passes for civics. A citizenship test yields answer-givers, not capable citizens. A computer game wraps that basic knowledge in a more entertaining package but does little to pursue better outcomes. We have been asked to accept an idea of Civic Education that yields little resistance to the talking points dressed up as serious issues dominating social media.

What I’m Asking You to Do

Civic Education has been the north star for many of us for a very long time. We know it has the potential to make all the difference for healthy communities as well as electoral outcomes.

We need to create a channel where our expertise is accessible outside the classroom. We need to offer some sort of transparency to our thinking so that accusations of inculcating “partisan thinking” fall on deaf ears. We need to demonstrate how people in their own communities concerned to bring Civic Education to their gatherings can do that.

Let’s talk to one another and work together to identify what has been lost, what we might revive and where we should innovate to bring the Civic Education we need back into our classrooms and communities. Let’s get those ideas out of the classroom. I want to hear your ideas. I want to help you write them up here at Politicolor and to promote them from here.

2009 National Institute

As someone who has attended two of the Center of the Constitution’s weekend programs, I was overly excited when I was accepted to the 2009’s National Institute.  Of course I couldn’t wait to pick Will’s brain for more and more insight, but quickly I have learned this Institute is much more than that.

This institute is a way not to just learn about polity and community, but to also build our very own community and polity. As I climbed  the mountain behind Occidental,with a few of my friends, to watch the beautiful California sunset, I finally figured why we were here at Occidental. We are Scipio, climbing to the top of our own little world, looking down to see the wholeness and order that is so clearly there. We are here to build a republic, a group of citizens of common interest, putting the theories that we are learning into practical applications. But we will be building our own community on the foundations of all the former institutes. Because the institute’s whole is truly greater then the sum of one of its years part.
It is really interesting to watch a group of people, with no more then a common interest to learn and living on the same floor of a building, in just a few short days turn into a community.  I just hope my initial optimism wont give away to the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

After speaking to Shellee, and  her wanting to try to include the former institutes by tweeting her experience. I thought that I too had an obligation as citizen of this world to build common interest between  all members, past and present.  I hope to blog every few days about what is going on in the institute, I just hope, you will all join in with comments.

Project Citizen

Having been briefly introduced to Project Citizen at the National Academy, I decided to try it out this year.  It’s an ideal, outcome-based activity as much about the journey as the finish.  And the great thing about the finish is that it’s really just the beginning, for students receive the tools to research and formulate public policy.  In the end, it is incredibly empowering for the kids to discover the pathways through which they can enact change.

A few words from my fourth-graders (non-speakers) when asked today by the panel what they had learned from the experience: “I learned what private domain is.”  “Compromise.”  “Better research skills.”  “How a bill becomes a law.”  “How long it takes to pass a bill.”  “A lot about pollution and landfills.”

In our first few sessions, my 4th-6th grade students narrowed their choices for the project to these rough ideas: Save Bears, Clean-Up Michigan’s Rivers, Fix the Litter in Detroit.  The more we delved into the text, students discovered that those topics really weren’t clear proposals for public policy.  They also gained a ton of knowledge regarding sovereignty, as well as private sphere/civil society/ government.  The more they learned, the more focused their idea became, and their eventual choice–EXPAND MICHIGAN’S BOTTLE LAW–ended up as a wonderful combination of the early favorites.

P1040614 P1040612 P1040613 P1040611

The four areas of the portfolio–PROBLEM, ALTERNATIVE POLICIES, OUR SOLUTION, and ACTION PLAN–serve as a fantastic outline for anyone of any age attempting to bring about change.

The panel presentation in a committee room at the state capitol was the pinnacle of the experience.  Having misjudged time, our project came down to the wire (lesson learned: start early!); as a result, the kids didn’t first benefit and learn from a local session.  However, they could not have done any better than what I witnessed today.  Thorough preparation pays dividends, and I was so proud of my students for presenting without reading from a page.  (It does make a difference, I can tell you, as we were able to observe a high school group who did just that.)


We will be participating in Project Citizen next year, and in the years after!  Sincerely, the entire process has been one of the most valuable of my entire teaching career.

If you have any questions about Project Citizen, right down to the tooth ‘n’ nails, feel free to contact me at [email protected], or pose your questions here.

My Serial of Boxes (Pt. 1 of 3)

After a year to digest Will’s colors and boxes, I felt ready to use them with my class.

It wasn’t without apprehension.  Although I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and re-envisioning the National Academy (primarily through writing and this site), I want to approach mastery before revealing ideas.  I think that’s only natural with one’s classroom.  All good teachers admit their limitations, yet we don’t like to be wrong a whole lot, and that’s when working with facts.  Here I was, deciding to dive into theory.  And it looked like a glass of water down on the sidewalk from five-stories high.

The first decision I made was to re-prioritize.  I teach in a Montessori school, and, for those unfamiliar, text books aren’t the standard operating procedure.  I use one for science and another for my 7th/8th Algebra I students; and that’s it.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by the middle school We the People curriculum when offered a sample at the 2007 National Academy, and had gone on to use my class set in 07-08.

The mistake I made, though, was to teach from the text.  As a result, what had been always been riveting knowledge for me, and nothing short of revelatory in LA, was too stiff and rigid for my 4th-8th graders.  On top of that, even when I used a science book, it was ancillary.  Here, my passion for Civics was being suppressed by the need to cover every square inch of the print.  There was none of the feeling I’d experienced at the National Academy.  I mean, we moved, but there were way too many stumbles.

This year, I returned to my style and my strength.  I’m a storyteller, so that’s what We the People would be: a story.  No longer did I feel this self-imposed pressure to follow the curriculum verbatim and wait until Unit 3 to mention the Constitution.  In fact, I began with the Constitution.  After all, a plot needs its protagonist, right?

My second overarching concern was the boxes themselves.  For a long time in LA, as I worked to connect them to various philosophers and the readings, the meanings of each had confused me.  And here I was, considering imparting them to an even younger group than the year prior!  However, I did remember the moment in which the boxes had finally made sense; it was when Will suggested that they could move.

Armed with my point of access, as well as the open-mindedness my students had always shown, I took the leap.

It was after covering the philosophers that I pulled out a rainbow of dry erase markers.  Sure, the kids had seen them before.  I’m something of an artist, and Montessori encourages an attractive classroom; so I frequently embellish lectures and even corners of the white board.  But here, something was different.  The teacher was explaining that the colors would hold meaning.  A noticeable discomfort rippled through the group, and an inner giddiness began to flutter.  It’s not that I’m sadistic; rather, some of the greatest lessons arise from a wee bit of revolution.  The moment seemed pregnant with such possibility.  When I asked them to pull out their own colored pencils and match them with the corresponding markers, the hook was set.  Over the next several days, I watched my students rise and breech the waters of complacency to flutter through the otherworld sensation of air.

They were flying, and I couldn’t believe it.  Suddenly, theory wasn’t a cup below; we were together at sea-level, and some of the kids were actually taking leaps to defy gravity.

NEXT THURSDAY: Further Adventures with Long-Dead Philosophers.  Or Are They..?

A Paradigm: Six Words for the National Academy

You might remember a New York Times contest to craft a six word motto for the United States. We turned the powerhouse of Academy thinking at the question. Laura suggested a phrase you might recognize…


I think that phrase resonated as a result of her work at Monpelier’s NEH Landmark institute. Keith reviewed his notes from the Academy and provided a whole list of possibilities! This year’s National Academy wrestled a rigorous three weeks but still found time to toy with the idea of what six words would be the best represent their three weeks of scholarship in Los Angeles.

It’s something like the re-writing project…

What six words would you propose for the National Academy if you wanted to communicate as much of IT as possible with only THIS fragment?