Antiquated Constitution?

About one hundred years after the Constitution was adopted in this country Henry Adams was convinced it was already obsolete. As the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents he might have been concerned that the document tied the hands of the executive. That would be understandable. It certainly is the case that when it was written, one of the major concerns of its authors was to limit the powers of the President. Perhaps it limited the executive too much. Adams thought it made government stagnant and he hoped that when Grant took office the situation would be remedied. It wasn’t, however, since Grant didn’t do much of anything except make some bad appointments and get mixed up with the Gold Scandal. Adams came to believe that Grant was a living argument against Darwin!

But there does seem to be some truth in Adams’ concerns. A document written in the eighteenth century, especially one that didn’t even mention corporations, seems antiquated at best and positively outdated at worst. Large Wealth has gained the upper hand and turned our Republic into a corporate oligarchy. Further, consider the powers granted to the U.S. Senate which is the body that was targeted by Adams for most criticism. It has immense power and its members seem to be around forever gaining more and more power. The Senate is able to abuse that power even more readily than the President — something the framers did not foresee.

Madison, for example, was convinced that no minority, within or without the Senate, could ever stall the workings of a democratic system because the majority would simply sweep them aside. In Federalist # 10, Madison expresses almost naive confidence in the ability of a majority to eliminate what he called “factions,” or those small groups within and without government that would misdirect the public good. He says “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by a regular vote.” But then Madison was also convinced that those in Congress would be the best and brightest in the country at large, “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations.”  Yeah, right.

Let’s consider some of the powers of the Senate listed in Article II Section 2 where, ironically, the document explains some of the powers of the President (note the repeated qualifications):

[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.

It is precisely the powers to “advise and consent,” as Adams saw it, that pretty much tie the hands of the executive and can bring government to a halt. In fact, as we have seen in our day, the Senate can simply refuse to act on presidential appointments and they remain vacant for years. During Adams’ lifetime, Secretary of State John Hay was repeatedly frustrated by the Senate’s reluctance to ratify treaties Hay had painstakingly arranged. The two-thirds majority required for ratification was the killer. It seems that this power is the one Adams most strenuously objected to as it ties the government in knots. It was certainly one of the most hotly debated topics at the time of the writing and subsequent adoption of the Constitution: would the President be hindered from doing his job or would he be given enough power to do the job and then abuse that power? It was a difficult line to draw.

But given the snail’s pace with which this government goes about its business; its susceptibility to the influence of “factions” and PACs; the lack of term limits on members of Congress; the persistent misreading of the second amendment; and the unrestricted influence of large corporations on the election and functioning of officials within government, a strong case can be made that the Constitution can no longer do the job it was designed to do more than two hundred years ago. Rexford Tugwell, part of F.D.R.’s “brain-trust,” years ago proposed a revised Constitution that was widely discussed but went nowhere. Perhaps it is time to reconsider.

Advertisements

Holistic Education

I have written several blogs that refer to the rise of anti-intellectualism in this country. If the attitude, which is now widespread, did not start with the religious enthusiasts in the colonies, then it certainly did with Andrew Jackson and pals like Davy Crockett, the sporadically schooled men of action who regarded intellect as “effeminate” and distrusted experts. But, as I have noted, the movement was more recently given a powerful thrust  forward by Senator Joseph McCarthy whose hearings in the early 1950s centered on artists, poets, writers, college professors. and even the President of the United States as the source of Communism and everything that was evil in this country. Bashing anyone who seemed the lest bit thoughtful became the fashion.

The movement had gone underground briefly during the Progressive era and the days of FDR’s “brain trust,” as it did again, despite the effects of the McCarthy hearings, during the post-Sputnik era in the early 1960s when America in a panic wanted more scientists, and during the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy who loved to have intellectuals around him and in his cabinet. But after Kennedy’s death the movement recovered its strength and gained momentum and is now a powerful force in this country — as attested to by the fact that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are today taking center stage and being applauded left and right (mostly right). The scum also rises.

Ironically, anti-intellectualism is especially prevalent in the schools where the battle has taken the form of an attack by many teachers themselves against traditional (“aristocratic”) education with its emphasis on developing the mind of young people and a (“democratic”) defense of an education directed at developing the “whole” child. Nowhere was this fight more pronounced than in San Francisco in the early 1960s where a committee was formed to determine how the school system could improve in light of Russia’s apparent superiority in sending a rocket successfully into space. The committee came back with a report that the schools should return to a more traditional approach to education and seek to set higher standards in the classrooms, emphasizing science and mathematics, especially. The reaction to this report by six educational organizations [!] is especially noteworthy: they came together with a printed rebuttal of the report and defended the child-centered, “life adjustment” educational system that was by then taking the country by storm (and which is now firmly entrenched in our schools in the form of the “self-esteem” movement). As  Richard Hofstadter notes in his study of anti-intellectualism in this country:

The groups attacked the San Francisco report for “academic pettiness and snobbery” and for going beyond their competence in limiting the purposes of education to “informing the mind and developing the intelligence,” and reasserted the value of “other goals of education, such as preparation for citizenship, occupational competence, successful family life, self-realization in ethical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions, and the enjoyment of physical health.”

Now one must wonder why developing the child’s mind does not lead to “preparation for citizenship,” since we would certainly want informed and thoughtful citizens in this democracy. It is certainly what the Founders envisioned. Further, a person who can think will be a much more valuable employee than one who cannot, one would think. Despite the bogus arguments of the advocates of “life adjustment” for the kids during the early part of the last century, numerous psychological studies have shown that liberal learning has a good deal of  “transfer” value: studies of great literature, properly pursued, can pay off in the business world, for example. Job preparation should therefore not be viewed in a narrow focus, but in a focus broad enough to allow that the minds of those who work need also to be developed and nurtured along with specific job skills.  But to take the rest of the goals the group put forward as the proper object of education, one hastens to ask why the schools, specifically, should concern themselves with such things as ethics and morality and the development of “spiritual dimensions”? One would have thought such things were the purview of the family and the church.

Indeed, this has always been one of my main quarrels with progressive education: the concern for the “whole child” and the attack on those (like me) who think the goal of education should be on developing the child’s mind ignore the fact that the schools cannot possibly be expected to do everything at once. It is enough to ask the schools to focus their attention on developing the minds of the children placed in their charge. Developing character and establishing ethical and moral principles in the hearts and souls of the children are extremely important goals, but they should not be part of the objective of the schools. The schools have enough to do if they simply focus on what they are able to do and seek to do it more effectively.

I suspect that a large part of the fact that the schools in this country have fallen behind other developed nations is precisely this — that since the 1930s, at least, we have sought to make the schools responsible for raising the children and not simply educating them. Far too much has been heaped on the plates of this nation’s teachers — and then we add insult to injury by refusing to pay them what they are worth. To be sure, part of this goes back to this nation’s distrust of those who use their minds and the notion that such people are somehow twisted and deformed because the rest of their personality has been undeveloped while their minds have been allowed to take over their lives. But this is a caricature and as such ought to be accorded the ridicule it deserves. The schools should not and indeed they cannot develop the “whole child.” That is the job of families and the churches, in conjunction with the schools — a point that has been too long ignored.