In today’s political forum, no one is looking to start another argument. It’s still true, however, that a good argument can make all the difference in what happens next.

Good arguments require connecting ideas. Listening to one another and thinking through a logical framework together. When we avoid arguing reasonably together, we also turn away the connectedness and empathy it cultivates.

Sadly, Election 2016 has us all imagining partisan battle stations with perfectly calibrated talking points. One good argument could bridge the gap between fighting one another and thinking together. Good arguments rely on good questions. One good question could prove to be an invitation to connect rather than divide.

Occidental’s Greek Theater, photo by Keith Gall

This year’s National Academy for Civics and Government started with the question, “What are you for?” The Academy is best understood as a three-week exploration into what it means to take constitutional science seriously and then to apply to understanding how the American system came to be. What is the United States of America for? The twenty-one Citizen-Scholars who convened at Occidental College this summer had written their own answers when applying for the Academy. At our first session, they each had the option of recalling what they had written previously or to submit a new answer in the moment.

The usual suspect of fake news, limited political knowledge and extreme partisanship played leading roles in the questions that appeared alongside their FOR statements. These Citizen-Scholars devoted nearly half their summer to a serious course of study because they are FOR truth, engaged citizens, media literacy and political leadership. After these introductions, Professor Will Harris launched into the Academy’s opening session with reading the Declaration of Independence as a clear statement of a people who are FOR good government.

Final Presentations: Finding Answers and New Questions

With renewed authority, the scholars of the National Academy presented their own “findings” of at the end of the institute. A proposal for a new national anthem wove together the work of Aristotle, Thomas Kuhn, John Locke and Cicero and found harmony in between the melodies of “This Little Light of Mine,” “Fight the Power, “ and “Change is Going to Come.” Another team took Madison’s idea of revising and amending the U.S. Constitution (as opposed to adding another item to a list of amendments at the end of the document). The makeover yielded an Article IV that addressed a specific understanding of U.S. citizenship. Another panel of scholars gave the document the color treatment, applying the system Madison outlines in Federalist 37 for reviewing the proposed government. They assigned each category of review its own color and then analyzed the “color signature” of each article.

Photo from L.A.’s Natural History Museum (by Keith Gall)

As the complexity of the American system came into full view, one team of scholars traced the concept of equality through time, from Cicero and Aristotle to Locke, Jefferson, and the 14th amendment. They considered how the definition and different aspects of the concept combined to identify the purpose of government and define its role in society. The final panel of citizen-scholars took on the task of writing a new pledge, a credal affirmation, that would focus on promoting citizenship rather than saluting a symbol. They called their proposal a promise rather than a pledge and promoted it as an invitation to learn more about the founding documents it referenced and the commitments they represent.

The unsettled world had not grown any more quiet during the three weeks of the National Academy. The world still managed to look different to he citizen-scholars who had worked together to puzzle over hard questions. They returned to their own institutions of higher learning with new questions like how to create an “inter-text” dialogue where individuals, “debate the ideas of the texts using reason and empathy” and “what are the ways in which today’s environment might ultimately be good for Democracy and Constitutional Government?”

Questions of fatigue and despair had given way to questions with possibilities. Can’t wait to hear what happens next.

The Citizen-Scholars of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government

The citizen-scholars (and civic educators) of the 2017 National Academy for Civics and Government are:

Melissa Ackerman, Las Vegas, NV

Victoria Allen, Greensboro, NC

Scott Arronowitz, Keene, NH

Janet Bordelon, Palo Alto, CA

Angie Cosimano, Virginia Beach, VA

Amrita Dani, Boston, MA

Analia Escamilla, Salinas, CA

Cheryl Fleming, Brooklyn, NY

Adam Horos, Grand Rapids, MI

Michael Jackson, Swartz Creek, MI

Dennis Kass, Chicago, IL

Ross Ketchum, Dubois, WY

Erik Korling, Sacramento, CA

Amy Medlock-Greene, Irmo, SC

Tyler Nice, Springfield, OR

Andrew Orzel, Alexandria, VA

Dirk Schexnaydre, Geismar, LA

Jeanne Schierstedt, Racine, WI

Luke Schlehuber, Miami, FL

Emily Stout, Raleigh, NC

Steven Wang, Gainesville, GA

Christine Wilson, Washington, D.C.