Someone at the recent Democratic Convention mentioned that we are all the founders of the Constitution. I don’t remember now who said it, but it remained in my memory like so many quotes that have gotten implanted only to take hold later in more fertile ground. I have been often amazed at the almost reverential ways we treat the constitution and its founders as if the document were some kind of religious tract and its founders its prophets. Quote from it as if it were a document meant as revelatory truth to be used by all sides to bolster whatever view they support, rather than an embodiment of 18th century classical liberal ideas that provided a universal set of ideas that were capable of increasingly including more and more of its citizens into its language, but one which its founders exhibited a very limited vision of who the “WE” included.
One of my teachers years ago, the educational historian Lawrence Cremin, used to always say that we became a nation before we knew who we were as a people. (Another one of those quotes that remained dormant until ready to take root) Unlike so many nation states that can trace their origins in a murky past, we instead announced nationhood at a particular historical moment and have been trying to figure out what we meant by it ever since. Bringing others into the “WE” has always involved more than a rational argument or linguistic effort, but rather has followed long fought out battles by those at Seneca Falls, the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, the bridge at Selma, the voices at Stonewall, and so many others, who eventually expanded the meaning of “WE” to include the other. In effect, we are all the founders of this document as we expand the meaning of “WE” to include the other who had been excluded.
Rather than a reverential document, the Constitution is a clarion call to each generation to think anew about its fundamental meaning. As the editor of an educational journal, I have been thinking about the meaning this has for the education of our children. It raises the question about what education is really all about. Education is a shortcut for the next generation to start at the point where we left off, but as history has often shown, it becomes only words until that generation can actually experience it in their own lives and in their own times. One of my mentors years ago used to liken the educational journey to that of a monk (he was a Jesuit and an educator of teachers) one encounters on the road of life who lets you know the price of the choices you are meeting at a particular fork in the road. The choice is always the travelers to make. Needless to say, my colleague was not very popular in a world and a school system and a teacher preparation program that increasingly demand that all learning be reduced to a set of concrete objectives that can be taught and tested in some standardized way. But education, he insisted, was a journey with an unpredictable outcome. Unfortunately, what we cannot assure as a learning outcome has often been omitted from our curriculum.
But perhaps, that is the lesson. In facing our role with greater humility, we recognize that our influence is indeed limited. But rather than abandon what we might accomplish, we should amplify it. I often told my students when they were making choices about the courses they will select to meet their liberal arts requirement for their college degree, to not just select a course because it fits a particular time slot or was recommended by their classmates for its easy grade, but rather to ask themselves what am I becoming as a result of this course, what am I allowing myself to be influenced by, who am I becoming as a human being. Although it offers no answers for our students, it will provide them with the questions that just might make them see their role as the future “founder” of a constitution that keeps changing its meaning as it includes them as its author. Perhaps, all we can really do is to plant a seed that may flower when the moment is ready for it to take root just as a casual, probably long-forgotten comment at the Democratic Convention did for me.