Friday, November 2, 2012

Election Day: Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

Originally published by Catapult Learning, LLC, at:

Then tell me, O Critias, how will a man choose the ruler that shall rule over him? Will he not choose a man who has first established order in himself, knowing that any decision that has its spring from anger or pride or vanity can be multiplied a thousand fold in its effects upon the citizens?

Plato, Critias

Whenever Election Day comes around, I try to step back from the partisan craziness for a second and think about the strange legacy that has been bequeathed to us. Nothing about the system we now take for granted was a sure thing when the Founders put the pieces in place. When John Adams handed power to Thomas Jefferson in 1800 without violence or incident, it was as remarkable an event in the history of self-rule as the American Revolution had been. The people voted one party out and another party in, and the rulers complied peaceably. The blueprint turned out to be more than clever; it worked.

Of course, not everybody got to vote back then. Only men were deemed knowledgeable and responsible enough to participate in the democratic experiment. Men over 21, that is. White men over 21…who owned property. John Adams, who fought so passionately to liberate the colonies from British rule, felt that women, children, and the poor were too dependent on others for their food, shelter, and other essentials to be able to cast a responsible vote. His friend, Benjamin Franklin, disagreed. He imagined a man who owned nothing but a jackass and was therefore entitled to vote, but who lost his voting rights when the animal eventually died. The man had lost his property but had gained in knowledge and experience over the years. According to the law, it didn’t matter. “In whom is the right of suffrage?” Franklin asked. “In the man or in the jackass?”

But times have changed. We no longer believe that a person has to be wise, wealthy, or well-educated in order to cast a vote. And everybody approaches their civic duty differently. Some of us read newspapers obsessively, trying to be well-informed on the issues; some of us respond to candidates more viscerally, looking for a leader who possesses the personal and moral virtues needed to guide us through difficult times; some of us just vote a party ticket; and some of us don’t vote at all. All of us are susceptible to lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations. It’s very difficult to know enough to cast a perfectly wise vote. Perhaps all we can do is know what kinds of questions to ask, and how to evaluate the answers we get back.

I say “all we can do,” but it’s an awful lot to ask. How can we know what kinds of questions to ask in order to learn the things that will truly reveal a candidate to us—especially when candidates are trained to avoid saying anything too revealing? A social studies teacher might tell you that you need to have a deep and thorough understanding of American history and the structure of American government—to know where we have been and how we got here. A math teacher might tell you that you need to understand statistics thoroughly and comfortably in order to pose the right questions about data claims being made by campaigns. An English teacher might tell you to examine what a candidate says and how he says it—to question the rhetoric and evaluate the arguments. A science teacher might tell you that no promise a candidate makes can be taken as valid without it first being tested methodically.

Asking questions—the right questions—lies at the heart of learning, but we don’t talk nearly enough in our schools about the importance of questioning. We talk about the need to wait more than three seconds for a student to answer a question, but we don’t spend much time talking about the quality of the questions we’re asking, or what we do with the responses. And we don’t spend much time training students to ask better questions themselves…or encouraging them to want to.

At a recent conference on online learning, a speaker and author named Chic Thompson talked about the importance of asking great questions in school and in life. He pointed out that we tend to ask fewer and fewer questions as our life progresses, moving from a childhood defined by question-marks to an adulthood defined by periods. We take things for granted. We say, “It is what it is.” We shrug.

But can we afford that shrug? It is Election Day, after all—decision day—a day to make a choice. I know it’s easy to feel as though the choice one is asked to make is small, or futile, or unimportant. But it’s still a choice, and if we choose not to choose, we allow others to dictate our life to us. Which is not exactly what the Founders had it mind.

I wonder, sometimes, what possessed Thomas Jefferson to change John Locke’s formulation of “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when listing our most valuable and essential rights in the Declaration of Independence. It’s such a strange formulation: the pursuit of happiness. What on earth did he mean by it? He didn’t say, “Life, liberty, and happiness.” He wasn’t saying we were promised or guaranteed happiness itself. No. He said we had a right to the pursuit—a right to the chase—a right no government should be permitted to remove or repress.

Jefferson probably didn’t think of happiness the way we so often do, in fleeting and transitory terms. The leaves change color and the weather gets cooler, so I’m happy. Or: I wanted ice cream and I got ice cream, so I’m happy. That’s a very appetitive, maybe even animalistic way of thinking of happiness: I get what I want in the moment that I want it. I scratch an itch. That’s the way advertising has taught us to think of happiness, but there is something more to the word, especially as a classically educated man of the 18th century would have thought of it. To Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, the word happiness meant something more like the fulfillment of one’s life-work and the realization of one’s potential. Seen this way, “the pursuit of happiness” is not about getting the ice cream cone on a hot day; it’s about following your passion, chasing your dream, and becoming the person you want to be instead of the person your social class, gender, or economic background has told you you’re allowed to be.

Jefferson understood that it wasn’t enough simply to possess rights. He knew that without an understanding and an appreciation of those rights, people would eventually lose them. They would satisfy immediate appetites instead of delaying gratification and planning towards long-range goals. They would lose sight of the value of their liberty and sell it too cheaply. And he understood that the best protection against this fate was education. In his plans for the creation of the University of Virginia, Jefferson laid out a remarkably succinct list of “Goals for Public Education,” including (at the primary level):

 to give every citizen the information he needs to transact his business…
 to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas…
 to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either…
 to know his rights…
 to develop the reasoning faculties of our youth…
 to form [our youth] to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, 1818

It’s clear from the list that Jefferson felt education had to be about more than simply fulfilling personal goals or storing up academic knowledge. Jefferson talked about raising young people to be “examples of virtue to others” as well as “happiness within themselves,” and while both things are important, we have decided that public education is not the place to discuss things like “virtue,” or “duties to neighbors and country.” Those things are best taught at home, or as part of religious studies. In the separation of church and state, we have removed ideas like virtue and duty from schooling.

And yet, the things we do teach in school—the story of our quest for freedom; the stories of our search for knowledge and know-how; the various real and imagined stories we’ve told ourselves through the centuries—none of this is devoid of values, virtues, or a sense of public duty, whether rightly or wrongly understood. The things we have decided are worthy of study are not just dry facts—they are visceral parts of human history, tied to our passions, our dreams, and our fears. That is what makes them worthy of study. That is what makes them matter.

HENRY: I’m not going to be a part of any peacetime of yours. I’m going a long way from here and make my own world that’s fit for a man to live in. Where a man can be free, and have a chance, and do what he wants to do in his own way.
ANTROBUS: How can you make a world for people to live in, unless you’ve first put order in yourself? Mark my words: I shall continue fighting you until my last breath as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself. You and I want the same thing; but until you think of it as something that everyone has a right to, you are my deadly enemy and I will destroy you.
Thornton Wilder, The Skin of Our Teeth

I think about this Thornton Wilder quote and Mr. Antrobus’s challenge to his wild, out-of-control son: “I shall continue fighting you until my last breath as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself.” There is a difference between liberty and license, and it’s not one we talk about nearly enough with our young people. Liberty comes loaded down with obligations. You buy your personal freedom with civilized behavior that makes an un-oppressive, unrestricted public space possible. A school, town, or nation that becomes nothing more than a bunch of people “hogging everything” is a group of people living completely out of control—a group of people that will soon be at each other’s throats. It will not take long before they turn to some strongman, some king, in order to restore order and protect themselves from their own limitless and barbarous appetites.

And what is it that protects us from this “state of nature,” as Hobbes called it, and allows us think about things beyond saving our skin? What is it that balances our appetites with a sense of civic obligation and helps us see a horizon beyond our own hunger? What is it that makes the pursuit of happiness possible? For Hobbes, it was a supreme and all-powerful ruler. For Jefferson, it was a different kind of social contract, bound by law and made possible by education. It was, as it turns out, all that stuff in our books.

At the end of Wilder’s play, amidst the ruins of war, Mr. Antrobus, the eternal survivor and world-builder, takes his books out of hiding and listens again to the wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, and the Book of Genesis. He takes heart and takes hope, and he starts repairing his broken world. He makes a choice not to give up.

We make choices every day—hundreds of times every day. What are they informed by? What voices whisper in our ears and help us decide what to do? Do the choices we make add to or detract from our personal and civic happiness? These are important questions, and ones that our world-weary and cynical shrugs stop us from asking. We do damage to our children by letting them see us shrug or hear us say, “It is what it is.” We have an obligation to say, “What it is?” and “Why is it?” and “How could it be different?” We need to ask those questions and we need to teach our students to ask them, and to keep on asking them until they’re satisfied with the answers we give them…even if it pulls us away from our lesson plans. Because the pursuit of happiness was our first common core standard, and it will always be our most important one.

Happy Election Day.