In which we see studying as the product, not the prelude, of an exam
OK, kids. Constitution exam tomorrow. Review session today. Fire away.
Looks like we’re going to start with you, Emily.
—What do we need to know about the Electoral College?
Well, what you think you need to know about the Electoral College?
—Ugh. Not this again, Mr. K.
—Do we need to know how electors are chosen?
How are electors chosen, Em?
—Mr. K! You’re so exasperating!
—Each state gets a number. It’s based on the number of senators plus…
Can you help her out, Brianna?
—No. Wait. Is it something with Representative House?
Yes. Each state gets a number based on the sum of House and Senate members. So if New York has 27 seven members of the House and two senators (like every state) the total number is …
A veritable chorus of voices. Excellent. And if Wyoming has one member of the House of Representatives, then its total is …
And here you were thinking you History isn’t about math.
—Are you saying we need to know how many each state has?
Do you really think that’s what I am saying, Jonah?
—Well, no. But we do need to know how the Electoral College works?
Yes. Why. Why do I want you to know how the Electoral College works?
—So we know how a president gets chosen?
Yes. That’s an answer, a valid one. But what are some of the implications of having an Electoral College? How does it affect how a president gets chosen?
—It means the people get to choose?
Does it, Ethan?
Are you making an assertion or asking a question?
Touché, Em. Let’s try again. Who chooses the electors?
Yes, Adam. And who chooses the president?
So it that democratic?
I appear to have stumped you. Let me ask a different way: how much power do ordinary people have to choose the president?
—Not a lot.
—I think they get cut out.
—Can the electors choose whoever they want, regardless of the voting?
In point of fact, yes, Sadie, they can. But that almost never happens. Let me ask a variant question: Is the United States a democracy?
Well, what is it then, Yin?
—It’s a republic.
Very good. But what does that mean? How is a democracy different than a republic?
—A democracy is where the people choose directly. A republic is where the people choose their representatives.
Good. But which people in a democracy choose?
Is everyone a citizen?
—I don’t think so.
Right again. In ancient Athens, the typical example, only a small slice of the population had citizenship rights. (No women, for example.) In the United States, even the infant United States, democracy was impractical, because there were too many people who were too far spread out. Democracy was also, as far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, dangerous. I like to joke that they considered “democracy” a four-letter word. The Electoral College was meant to be a circuit-breaker, a way of cooling popular passions. And it worked exactly as intended until Andrew Jackson came along and broke it. Which we’ll get to.
—Can I ask about something else?
—I don’t get the “advice and consent” role of the Senate when it comes to things like Supreme Court nominations and treaties.
—Please, Mr. K.
Hey, Sadie, I’m just the messenger. I’m not the one creating the ambiguity here. The Founding Fathers did that. On purpose.
—Seems crazy to me that they would make it purposely confusing.
Is it, though?
—Wait: It’s like that other thing.
You mean concurrent powers, Jonah. Yes, the underlying principle is the same: division of authority. That’s why there’s three branches of government. And why we have the “advice and consent” business.
—I get that. But why make the division purposely unclear?
Well, now, that’s a good question, Sadie. The answer is that the Founders understood that the Constitution is a political document—that some things simply couldn’t be a matter of rules, because if they tried to anticipate every scenario the whole thing would break down. Some things would have to be worked out based on who has the most power or influence at a given moment. There’s some danger in that, but if the checks and balances are there, no one faction or point of view can get too powerful. Nowhere is this political dimension more obvious than in the way the Constitution handles the possible removal of a sitting president. Anyone want to tackle that one?
—You mean the whole impeachment thing.
—So the president does something wrong—
What do you mean “wrong?”
—Whaddya mean what do I mean? Something that’s not according to the Constitution—that’s unconstitutional.
Yes, but what makes something unconstitutional?
—Something that’s against the law.
Well, yes. But what makes something—oh never mind. The actual language in the Constitution is “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The point is that the Founders never really spell out how to define either, which are actually a kind of odd couple. Murder? For sure, that’s a high crime. But a misdemeanor? Are you going to get rid of a president over a speeding ticket? It would be hard to convince people that made sense. Which is kind of the point. The Founders figured if people got mad enough, they’d find a way to make their anger known, and that impeachment would be the process whereby that happened. So what’s the procedure? Yin?
—First you get impeached by the House. If a majority decides the president has done something wrong, then the President gets tried in the Senate. The chief justice of the Supreme Court is the judge. If two-thirds of the Senate votes to convict, the president loses his job.
Great. And how many times has this actually happened?
—There have been two impeachments: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted.
Outstanding. Just to finish making the point: there’s something avowedly subjective about impeachment and conviction. The Founders wanted to make it difficult, possible, and to some degree a matter of public opinion. I’d say they succeeded.
Let me introduce another topic: slavery Question: how many times does the word “slavery” come up in the Constitution?
—A 103 times.
Good, Jonquil. The answer is never. Slavery is referred to three times: There’s a fugitive slave provision in which property must be returned in Article IV, Section 2. And the international slave trade was outlawed after 1808 in Article I, Section 9. That meant you couldn’t import slaves from Africa after that. Remember, as we talked about, a lot of the Founders believed slavery was dying. But the effect of this provision ended up making domestic slaves more valuable. Virginia got rich essentially exporting its slaves to other states.
—And the third time is the 3/5ths Compromise, right?
Good, Adam. How did that work?
—It was for representation in Congress. Each slave was 3/5ths of a person. This gave the Southern states an advantage.
Not just in Congress—as we’ve been discussing, Congressional representation determined the size of an Electoral College delegation. In 1800, for example, Thomas Jefferson would not have been elected president without slaves adding to the counted population of major slave states like Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia.
—Can we talk about amendments now?
Sure, Kylie. Why don’t you start by telling us what you know?
—So an amendment is when you want to change the Constitution. I don’t understand the whole thing about the state capitals.
Yes, that is a little confusing. There’s more than one way to get an amendment. One is to call a series of state conventions, and if two-thirds of them agree, then it passes. But that’s never been done successfully. The way it’s typically done is that bills pass both House of Congress agreeing to approve them by two-thirds margins, and then three-quarters of the states vote to approve the proposal (as opposed to holding a convention to consider a proposal).
—You say “typically.” Is there some other way?
Well, the Bill of Rights came in together as a package. That’s the first ten amendments. Part of a deal James Madison made to get the Constitution passed. The Antifederalists were afraid there weren’t enough personal protections in the document. Madison replied that they’re implied. Not good enough, they responded. Fine, he said: If you agree to ratify I’ll codify them into a Bill of Rights. Ten amendments.
—Do we have to know all ten?
—All of them?
Yes. Not in detail. Just the main ideas. First Amendment: freedom of speech, religion assembly. Second Amendment: right to bear arms. That kind of thing.
—I hate memorizing.
I understand. I want you to do it anyway. It’s good practice. We don’t do enough of this kind of thing. The habit, the practice, is to me more important than the information. The ability to think critically is the most important thing. But it’s hard to do with without a core of information. That’s why I’m asking you to study this document, to know it.
—What’s” the Commerce Clause?”
Article I, Section 8. Gives Congress the power to regulate the economy, principally through the power to levy taxes.
—Are you saying that we have to know each section of all the Articles?
Is that what I’m saying, Jonah?
—Still. So much information.
Yes, Emily. And you’re likely to forget most of it. Even though it’s only about a half dozen pages when you print out the document from the website.
—So why are you asking us to memorize it?
—Mr. K.? Why aren’t you answering?
—Duh: why do you think, Em?
—Shut up, Ethan.
—No: that’s what he’s waiting for you to say. He replies to your questions with a question, remember?
—Oh. Right. I should have known better than to ask. I’m really getting sick of this.
I’m going to turn to Paolo now. Paolo, our friend Emily is getting frustrated, and I think it’s because I’ve been pushing my luck a little. I may be reaching the point of diminishing returns with her. Let me turn to you. No games, here. Just tell me what you think: Why are you going to take this test tomorrow?
—Because I have to.
Right. You’re in this course, state law mandates a U.S. history class, etc. A follow-up question: what do you hope will happen when you take this test tomorrow?
—I hope I do okay. I hope I get a good score.
I hope so too, Paolo. You might. Then again, you might not. You’re going to be a good guy no matter what happens. One more question: Why do you think I’m giving this test?
—So we learn.
That’s correct. I want everyone to note a slight slippage of interests that Paolo has noted here. He said he wants to do well. He also said I want you to learn. I think you want to learn, too. But as we all know, getting a good score is not necessarily the same thing as learning. Some of you won’t do as well as you hoped given your effort; others of you will do better than you secretly will feel you should. And some of you—most of you, I hope—will end up with a score that’s in the ballpark in terms of your ability and effort. None of us can control that, because I’m an imperfect vessel for transmitting and measuring the flow of information, and I usually don’t really know how easy or hard a test is until I actually give it and see how you all do.
Let me make a little confession here. I believe you all really do want to learn. But I also think that when push comes to shove, you care more about the score than the learning, partly because you’re enmeshed in a system where grades matter more than we might wish. So I don’t blame you for caring more about your score than your learning. But I believe you have a misguided priority in that regard, and I regard it as my job to try and manipulate you the best I can.
—You see it as your job to manipulate us?
Yes, I do, Sadie. That’s how I understand my role as an educator: to set up situations and experiences you otherwise wouldn’t have and ask you to react to them. I then try and call attention to your reaction—in some cases, I prod you to react—in a self-conscious way. My hope is that once you’ve considered your reaction, once you’re reflected on your reaction (something as likely to happen when you’re standing in the shower than sitting in a classroom), you’ll mentally change for the better. Can I know for sure when that happens? Can I know if it happens? No. I’ll do my best, just like you will. Teaching is an art, not a science.
—Well, OK. But what does that have to do with this test?
Here’s your answer, Em—and please note that I am giving you answer, with gratitude for the irrepressible curiosity that keeps you asking questions even after I’ve annoyed you so many times. And that answer is this: You’re studying for this test because you want to do well. But I’m administering this test because I want you to have studied. For you, the score is the product. For me, your having studied is the product. My hope is that this particular episode of having studied will become part of a pile of such experiences, in this course and others, that will do something to your brain.
—That’s asking for a lot from a test, Mr. K.
Yes. And unlike you, I don’t get the benefit of a score.
—Well, I’ll give you one. I promise. But I’ll warn you: I’m a hard grader.
Well, thanks, Em. That makes me a little worried.
—Good. You should be.
Right. A little worried. Keeps me honest.
Next: Thanking God for slavery?