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from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

How I justify continuing to teach government 

It ain’t easy. This week I had a candid discussion with my AP Government students. I noted that there is something horribly gone wrong with our system if the primary discussion is how much of what the world considers to be torture we will accept as justifiable.

I also can get quite demoralized by what I see in our political discourse, and that I lay at the feet of both parties. It does not matter if it is John Ashcroft implying I am a traitor because I criticize the president in a time of international conflict or if it some on the left who far too readily violate the principle espoused by Godwin and begin to affix appellations of Nazi and Hitler to the Republicans.


I read the news reports today and see Democrats unwilling to speak out forcefully against a proposal that to me is clearly unconstitutional. I see evidence that this administration is prepared to argue - against the weight of all jurisprudence since Marbury v Madison - that it is the president who gets the final interpretation of the Constitution and not the Court. I cannot avoid the abandonment of principles such as habeas corpus and trial by jury that go back half a millenium or more before the writing of the Constitution and which are an essential part of the governmental framework from which the Constitution is derived. I reread the Declaration and Jefferson’s words about
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind
and wonder when we abandoned such a key idea from our assertion of our right to be independent, when those words became, in the ironic expression of Ron Ziegler during another constitutional crisis (for it is in such we are now engage), “inoperable”?
A Constitutional Crisis. We are in danger of losing it, ironically at the very time we by law are to teach a lesson on Constitution in every educational institution receiving Federal funds. We are to teach it as we abandon it, undercut the very principles on which it is based, which include limited government, protection of the rights of individuals, and the like?

As a nation we have prosecuted and executed others for things we are now willing to official and ex post facto grant immunity to ourselves. How is that a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, and how does that maintain the idea that we are a government of laws and not of men? Does merely passing a law justify something that the Constitution and ratified treaties which are therefore also part of the Supreme Law of the Land prohibit somehow overcome the weight of more than 200 years since Marbury that if a statute can change the Constitution then the very idea of a constitution becomes meaningless? Marshall argued that the intent of a Constitution was to limit to the power of the government. We now seem ready to abandon that idea.

I have, as regular readers know, continued to wrestle with whether I can in honesty continue to teach government and the Constitution. Perhaps this week I found my answer. I told my AP students that the reason I continue to teach is them. My generation, and the generation of their parents (for at 60 I am significantly older than most of their parents, who are usually in their 40’s) have not left them a happy situation, and it will be up to them to save the idea of a liberal democracy, a democratic republic, lest the nation that created the model finally abandon it.

I also urged them to recognize that there are no permanent coalitions in an society and political ethos as diverse as ours, which is why they must teach us again how one can disagree without being disagreeable - that the Machiavellian principle of the end justifying the means - when used to justify personally destroying one who is at this moment your opponent - ultimately results in the ability to have the support of that person when you need it on some other issue.

I find myself moving ever closer to the point of civil disobedience, even at the loss of my vocation of teaching in public schools, of my liberty, of my life. I cannot in conscience remain quiet when I see our nation’s heritage being destroyed. I will not be a frog in a pot of what was cool water remaining in that liquid as the temperature is raised until I am boiled to death.

It will not be in my name and on my behalf that torture is done, that abandoning of the Constitution is justified. I am supposed to teach the Constitution, not the distorted misinterpretations advocated by David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, Dick Cheney, and George Walker Bush. I will continue to do so, to challenge my students to read the document, read the history, see the price we paid historically when we moved away from such principles, and urge them to be true patriots - to stand up for what the Constitution represents.

When I read the Preamble, I do not see as a principal reason for ordaining and establishing the Constitution the aggrandizement of one political party or another, of one individual or another, of one economic or social class or another. The last of the reasons is to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. We do not maintain that ideal by abandoning the very underpinnings of liberty, by removing oversight by Courts and Congress intended to act as a check on unreasonable or even tyrannical executives, but abandoning the principle of habeas corpus which assures some reasonableness in the decision to arrest and detain someone. The Constitution would not have been ratified without the commitment to the limits on the power of the Federal government found in the Bills of Rights. The Sixth Amendment clearly gives each accused the right to confront the witnesses against him, and since no evidence can in a criminal trial be introduced except through the testimony of a witness, that means there can be no secret evidence used, no exceptions of evidence that cannot be challenged as to its provenance, how it was obtained, and so on.

The executive branch is claiming a right to interpret - free from oversight or checks and balances - the Constitution in a fashion that unleashes it to do whatever it wants. That very notion is alien to the Constitution, and every Congressman and Senator should recognize that in acquiescing to such a position they not only abandon the Constitution to which they have committed their support by oath or affirmation, they reduce themselves, their offices, their legislative bodies to the position of rubber stamps, of becoming Potemkin Village legislative bodies, devoid of substance, meaning, power, or authority. Any legislator unwilling to challenge such an approach has violated his or her oath of office, and should be challenged and rejected for that reason alone.

Our nation is at a crisis. That is how I justify continuing to teach, so long as I can, what our nation is supposed to be. It is why I am challenging my students. I tell them that they can disagree with me. I also point out that they are being allowed a larger amount of intellectual freedom than some politicians are willing to grant their political opponents. I tell them that what matters is not the grade that they get from me, or how well they do on the AP exam, but whether they grasp how important the subject with which we wrestle is to them, to their future, to the future of this nation. If they will confront that seriously, they will do fine both as to grades and as to AP scores. If they do not, then grades and scores will ultimately avail them not.

Perhaps I will eventually be fired. That may be, but I will not be silenced. I do not tell my students WHAT to think, but I insist that they DO think, and not to accept from any authority - including me or their textbook - merely because it is an authority. Ask why, explore the possible answers, discuss, listen to one another.

Perhaps Keith Olbermann and I will be roommates at Guantanamo? Are you prepared to join us there?
Comments:
I am not too politically knowledgeable, but I will say that I agree with a majority of your points. I will add that I don't like Bush and I am proud of it whether the government likes it or not. I am prepared to make the stand Bernstein Sahib.
 
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