Sunday, May 23, 2010

Campfires and Politics

Is there a better forum for talking politics than sitting around a campfire?

Friday night, I found myself doing just that. Sitting around that fire were a man whom I respect a lot and two other guys I had just met. Since I teach History at a local high school, the conversation eventually turned to the subjects I teach (World Studies and US History). From there, it was just a short jump to “How should the Constitution be taught?” and then to “How come no one follows the Constitution anymore?”

Phew…How to answer those questions? Is there an easy answer? Let me tackle the first one…

The answer to the first question should be obvious:

As it was written.

Now, we Government teachers like to talk about liberal v. strict interpretations of the Constitution. For example, if the Constitution says (and it does) that Congress has the power to “regulate commerce among the several states”, what exactly does that mean? An argument can be made (and it has…A LOT) that it means Congress can get involved in commerce no matter what the circumstance. But, how do you balance that with the 10th Amendment, which tells us that “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution. . . are reserved to the states respectively”?

See the problem here? One side will argue that Congress only has the power to regulate commerce that happens between states and the other side will claim that it means Congress can get involved in any kind of business transaction, since most of them happen between states anyway. How do you explain this to high school students who, according to Hollywood, only care about where their next beer is coming from?

You explain it exactly how I just explained it to you.

See, we all need the ability to be able to see all sides of an issue. Without public discourse and the ability to truly listen to the other side, we lose our own ability to learn and be better informed citizens. So, high school students (and most members of Congress, the White House, and the judicial branch) need a crash course in listening; in putting aside your own biases for a few moments while listening to the other side explain how they came to a different conclusion than you. You never know…you could be (gulp)…wrong…

Now, you may argue that there are certain things in this world that are “truths”…and I would absolutely agree with you. But that doesn’t mean that people who disagree with your own opinion have any less valid of an argument or that they don’t deserve to be listened to. So, this is how I taught the Constitution. I gave the kids the background and we had a number of discussions on how the government was doing (or, in many cases, not doing…), we listened to every viewpoint that they wanted to share, and I let the kids make up their own minds. And I taught a number of future citizens some things about the Constitution and how to listen to others in order to be a better citizen. And I kept my job…

What about the second question? Well, it’s late and I have a number of opinions on that one, too. But right now, I just want to remember the feeling of being in the woods, enjoying the crackling fire, and listening to other people share their opinions respectfully with each other.


Such important words. Even when you’re not around a campfire.


  1. This applies to everything, doesn't it? If my children could learn this, our home would be much closer to 'a heaven on earth'. They are so married to being RIGHT.

  2. Wouldn't it be lovely if our politicians could do this?

  3. Very well said. As I heard once somewhere (recently), we should try to disagree without being disagreeable. As time passes, I think that the polarization of the political process drives out sincere debate as individuals disengage and silence themselves in order to avoid the vitriol.

    A third interpretation on the interstate commerce clause is that "regulate" means to make regular (Think ExLax -- cringe). The context there is that in the intervening years from declaring independence to the Constitution the confederation of states experience restrictions to free and regular trade amongst themselves.

    The framers of the Constitution wanted to put authority with Congress to ensure that the individual states didn't restrict trade. However, the intention was never to have central economic planning. They experienced far too much of that as the King -- far removed from understanding local issues -- issued decrees that were ill-suited for implementation at the local level. You know, something like a federal department of education defining curriculum from Washington DC to be used in Missoula, Montana.

    Those things should be left to more local concerns -- like local school boards. At least so the theory goes.

  4. Mmm...I love sitting around a campfire. They always seem to bring out intellect, or at least we perceive ourselves as intellectual whilst we visit around them.

    So we got new Social Studies curriculum this year and this is the first time I've had to teach my first graders about the constitution and Bill of Rights. Any suggestions for helping these young minds to grasp such an abstract concept?

  5. DJ: Depends on what exactly you have to teach them. I think they can grasp the Bill of Rights if you simplify the rights we have because of it. How much do you really need to teach the Constitution?

  6. Growing up, most of the political discussions occurred around the dinner table. I learned to be a better listener since most arguements I watched as a kid left little room for differences of opinion. You can learn from poor examples too.
    As for your piece, regarding the writing, I think a bit of setting and background on the characters could really bring a reader in. I love stories where I can imagine myself sitting right there with everyone. I think your message is solid, and your dicussion follows a central idea. I just imagined sitting somewhere in my own memory. Nice piece. Pleas let me know if you have specific questions you would like input on.