The Constitution, the election, and the truth

Note:  A week following this event, Will Harris posted his reflections on this program here.

Sixty teachers attended our program this past Thursday, Friday, and Saturday connecting the 2008 election to the Constitution.  This was one of the most eagerly anticipated programs we’ve produced, for a number of reasons:  Its tie to the election, so front and center in our focus personally and professionally these days; it promised to continue building our understanding of the Constitution, work many of the teachers have been engaged in through our Constitutional Connections TAH program for the last three years; and finally – for many, most importantly – it was led by Will Harris, with whom many of the teachers had studied at James Madison’s Montpelier.Harris began the program Thursday evening with a talk titled Talking about the Differences that Matter:  Federalist and Antifederalist Approaches to Politics.  This covered (in rapid fashion) much of the work we had done with him in Montpelier; he believes that an understanding of America, past and present, can be built through applying this lens.  For those participants who had been to Montpelier, I think this talk served to reexamine those differences and consider them in their current context; for initiates, it was an introduction to considering the Federalist and Antifederalist approaches.

Friday brought two sessions.  In Understanding the Job Description:  The Constitutional Vision of Executive Power, Harris focused our attention on the presidency as explored in the Federalist Papers and articulated in Article II.  In Constitutional Approaches to Policy Debates, he looked at how the Antifederalist and Federalist approaches to policy might differ in action or rationale (both Obama and McCain backed the bailout, for example – though their reasons for doing so may have differed along these lines.)

Saturday’s discussion, The Unseen Debate:  What Would an Obama-McCain Constitutional Debate Look Like?, proved the greatest provocation of  the set.  Harris started by saying that he wanted to include us in some very high level discussions he had been participating in over the previous days.  Because of his expertise in and commitment to the US Constitution, he said, friends of his had invited him into some very exciting plans:  the potential for the presidential candidates to truly present their visions of governance.  Both candidates would, simultaneously, sit down with their party’s supra-politicos – McCain with Colin Powell, Obama with Al Gore – and have a long and substantive conversation, the antithesis of what we’ve been seeing in recent weeks.  Bill Gates had been brought on board to come up with a technology that would allow both candidates to be interviewed simultaneously and broadcast to viewers either live or in sequence, without channel surfing.  Harris explained that all of this work was taking place because of the candidates recognition that the times and the electorate demand and deserve better than what they’ve been getting and, accordingly, McCain would fire his entire campaign staff; Obama would fire those members of the campaign staff that came from Clinton’s team; and McCain had scheduled a meeting with Governor Palin.

From there, Harris described what McCain and Obama would say about their vision for America and the role they see playing in its governance.  McCain’s carefully matched Antifederalist notions of governance; Obama’s, the Federalist hope.

As he presented this scenario, Harris repeatedly emphasized all of this was done with built with plausible deniability.

It was a riveting two hours for all – but, I’ve come to realize, compelling for different reasons.

Throughout, I heard a speculative approach.  Like the best of speculative approaches, whether The Twilight Zone or Philip K. Dick or the Federalist Papers, it demanded an imaginary context in order for the truth to be told.  Clearly, these candidates don’t think they can level with America and be elected.  It took this leap of fiction to hear the “unseen debate.”

As it turns out, though, many (most? all?) of my colleagues did not hear the presentation in the same way.  They thought that Harris was not only telling the truth of the candidates’ vision but also detailing a news event that would soon be revealed to all. One participant called the scenario “a lie” – a word choice illustrating his anger; another sent me an email talking about the crushing effect of the ruse. Serious stuff.

Why did we see it so differently?  That’s been my nagging question since, all the more so as I come to understand how far apart I stood.  I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer, but I’m interested in exploring it.

Firstly, I think it’s important to say that I had no conversations with Will about this approach prior to the program.  That said, as soon as he broke into the talk I recognized what he was doing and was pleased.  Pleased for a number of reasons:  the approach would allow the candidates to speak in a way that none other would; the approach matched his refrain that the Federalist Papers and the Constitution were written to describe a possible, imagined world; lastly, from a Project Director perspective, I thought that Friday had gone a little long and thought that this would be a playful way to re-energize the week.

Perhaps most important of all is the role similar approaches – like Storyline and Mantle of the Expert – have played in my work as a teacher.  In working with those approaches, dissonance between the nature of the realities inside and outside the classroom presented themselves.  The approaches, though, allowed participants to engage with material with a depth that couldn’t have been achieved without the construct.

Here, the “reality” friction was an obstacle to my colleagues. Some felt frustrated, violated. While I view Harris’ scenario as necessary to see the truth, I’m afraid they see it as exploiting their hopes and dreams. Never than a “gotcha” opportunity, I heard in it Will Harris’ interest in getting to essential visions of America in a way which was intellectually evocative and demanding of ambiguity.

Of course, there is always the hope that they are right and I’m wrong, that soon we’ll hear what the candidates truly stand for…

I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section!

With great hope,



6 responses to “The Constitution, the election, and the truth

  1. Some thoughts in response to this summary and the experience from Saturday. As Will talked of his “McCain/Obama vision” my thought was one of cautioned optimism. My thought was, “Wow wouldn’t this be great,” but could it ever happen? Would these candidates really be that smart? My internal answer was, ” no way!!”–why would they start now? My optimism quickly faded the longer Will spoke. Eventually I realized I was in a 1929 (?) Orson Well’s drama in which the alien attacking in this scenario was a small man from Virginia. Like the Sirens from the Odyssey, his soothing song lulled my fellow participants into a mezmerized lull, then suddenly the rock walls appeared and all was lost. Where do we go from here Mr. Harris? Please, for the love of all that is Federalist/Anti-federalist give us the answer!!!

  2. I woke up on Sunday morning and grogged my way to the computer to see if there were any, “late-breaking developments”, alas no word of any. I was drawn in to the great debate and I thought wow, for once we might have a real moment in history where people attempted to make things “right”. Guess not. Still, I believe Harris is that good to have provoked this great discussion and that left me with some hope. The great minds are there and maybe there is some comfort in that. Great class!

  3. The Unseen Debate was so powerful, and subsequently depressing, because it showed how far we truly are from having the conversations we ought to have. What the candidates don’t say is so much bigger than their “I have a plan for that.” Hearing them today is like trying to define the universe without regard to the vastness between stars. The most important feature is the empty space.

    It also seems apparent that despite all our hopeful exhortations about empowering the next generation of leaders, the real work needs to be done with adults. NOW. I’m not sure the world will afford us twenty years to bring our government back to a constitutional way of doing business. And how likely is it that global markets will risk our being able to do so? I’ll make the case that our “faith and credit” are commensurate with our commitment to constitutional principals.

    In the midst of all that, I can’t forget that Will also reaffirmed our nation’s incredible capacity to do good in the world. We are out of balance, though. Nobody can deny that our ability to do well for ourselves and others is at low ebb. “For how long” seems to be the question, and the answer lies in the willingness of our leaders to engage in the Unseen Debate.

    I nominate Ellen Weiss for President.

  4. I really liked the format of Saturday’s instruction. Even though I had a gut feeling that Will’s “inclusion in some very high level discussions” was not really happening, I liked that I felt it might. I realized that I am open to the concept that change is possible and can start with a meeting of the minds as to what a campaign for the presidency could be. On any one day I can teeter-totter between being a cynical skeptic or a Pollyanna when it comes to our government. I loved the discussion, the process to think about the “what ifs” of this campaign. But, what I really loved was watching Will Harris command the room, some of us on the edges of our seats with the promise of something exciting, while others sat back in their seats with arms folded in disbelief. And, yes, I did check a number of TV channels at 9PM on Sunday to see if I was going to witness first hand a ground breaking political meeting of the minds! 😉 Beth Brisson

  5. Pingback: Will Harris - A Theoretical Moment « Teaching American History in SW Washington

  6. Pingback: Lesson Study: Presidential Power in a Time of Crisis « Teaching American History in SW Washington

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