12th Grade: Constitutions for Dummies, by Dummies


Several weeks ago the Government class discussed the basics of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy.  One goal I had in this was for students to understand . . .

  • How fundamental ideas about the nature of reality, and the nature of God, help form one’s ideas about government.
  • How one’s view of the nature of humanity (is mankind a body & soul? What is the relationship between our body and soul?) impact how one governs.
  • What relationship should context & history have in a given situation?

I shared an example from my own life that illustrates some of these issues.  Many years ago I lived in a townhouse community run by an HOA.  The development placed about 5 trashcans every 1/4 mile or so.  When people walked their dogs (and we had a high population density of dogs) we commonly deposited the refuse in the trashcans.  But during warmer weather, more people walked their dogs, and the additional heat made the trashcans, well, stink.  This was unfortunate.  Was it a “problem?”

The HOA came up with a rule: No more deposited dog waste in trashcans.  This, they hoped, would solve the problem.

One can view their solution in two basic ways, from a Platonist and Aristotelian perspectives.

The Platonist would argue. . .

  •  The law is a good one because it seeks to better the condition of all.  The neighborhood would become a nicer neighborhood.
  • The people would be encouraged to accept more direct personal responsibility for their pets — taking the refuse to their own trashcans would help them be more responsible overall.

The Aristotelian might respond. . .

  • The law is foolish because people will likely not obey it.  They will either continue to deposit the refuse in the trashcans, or worse, simply not pick it up at all.
  • The law cannot be enforced.  The HOA has no mechanism to police the area.  Thus, people’s disobedience will only encourage a more hostile attitude towards the HOA than they may already have.  In other words, a good law can only be called “good” if people actually obey it, no matter how good in theory the law might be.

I hope students enjoyed this unit.  I then wanted to have the students see how some of these ideas applied in the making of our own government.  To that end we spent the last few days reading Madison’s diary of the constitutional convention debates. We see that different people had different perspectives, different notions of what “liberty” meant and how to achieve it.  They wrestled with the big ideas, referencing key political texts, but also worried how those ideas would apply in the current political climate.  Some of there more lengthy debates seem immediately relevant today, others quite arcane.The decisions they reached sometimes came from unanimity, but more often came through compromise and disagreement.  And despite their brilliance, they failed dreadfully in not foreseeing a popular presidency, and what this meant for the Vice-Presidency.

I had a few main goals with this particular unit:

  • I wanted students to see that political agreements required a great deal of compromise.  I don’t mean to use compromise as a word of praise or derision.  Some compromises achieve great things, others, like the compromises made on slavery, condemn the future to deal with an issue that has had time to fester.
  • I wanted students to consider whether or not the many compromises they made had roots in their agreement on fundamental principles, or whether America was built on band-aids to the deep divisions between Americans at that time (and now).  If they agreed on fundamental principles, what were they?  If they had no agreement on such principles, why not?
  • What did the Constitution do particularly well?  In what areas did it fail?
  • Many of the men at the original Constitutional convention had years of experience in law and government, and an education that rooted them to the classical world.  And yet at times the decisions made seemed based more on arbitrary circumstance than profound guiding principles.  Should this worry us, or is this the way of the world?  Or perhaps it’s a gift, a reminder that we are all in need of God, that none of us, however intelligent, will ever have all the answers or the stamina to decide them fairly?


Thanks again,