Sunday, December 6, 2009

Those Pesky Founding Fathers

Who Were Those Guys Anyway???

For the last couple of years, I have found more frequently that students are entering my class with some pretty heavy preconceived notions concerning government and politics. These opinions seem to be on the extreme ends of the political continuum...that is to say the kids have an unusually conservative or liberal bent prior to walking into my door. Have you also noticed this?

Class discussions that once were based on readings and lectures now become tainted with partisan politics. It seems that the confrontational banter of the more extreme televised pundits has worked itself down to the level of teen audiences and is creating a red/blue divide in the classroom. I feel like Rip Van Winkle; I fell asleep one day and when I awoke the world was a strange new political place.

The advent of President Obama's election and the rise of Sarah Palin as the populist icon of conservative America seems to be the fuel for this fire. I suppose it is only natural that as the nation moves towards moderate liberalism on one hand and grassroots conservativism on the other that the kids will be pulled into the fray. What is interesting in my classroom discussion when we deviate into these ideological detours is that the students all claim that they have the Founding Fathers on their side. Those pesky Founders!

What is precipitating this blog is that for the last couple of years I have felt compelled to interrupt my scheduled lesson plans to return to the very first unit on underpinnings and have a further discussion on the Founding Fathers. There seems to be a great deal of confusion on who these people were and what were their intentions. The deeper into the course I travel with the students the more the Founders seem to intervene. Why is this? I have a theory.

Most American like to believe that our nation was founded by a marvelous group of like minded individual. Some how we have glorified the Founders as intellectual giants, courageous in their opposition to tyranny and self sacrificing in their march toward a democratic government. While this may or may not be true, what was true was the Founders were a factious lot representing many diverse elements of the former 13 colonies. The wealthy landed, the indentured, the small shopkeepers and the yeoman farmer all had their representatives as did the western settlers, the southern plantation owners, and the urban shipping commercial interests.

I don't reject the idea that the Founders were a unique collection of men unmatched in history. I do reject the notion that they had much in common with each other ideologically, economically, or politically. Madison had good reason to fear factions...they were everywhere particularly among the nation's leaders.

On the other hand, which group of Founders do we want to point to? Only four of those who signed the Declaration of Independence also signed the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Are the grass root revolutionaries such as Sam Adams and Patrick Henry to be put in the same category with later politicos such as John Jay and James Madison? Some how I doubt Sarah Palin looks to Alexander Hamilton, the father of big government, as her role model.

The practical side of today's conversation is that maybe I need to take more time at the start of the year and clarify some of these issues. I have always spent considerable time on ideologies and political beliefs; however, in the highly charged political society we now find ourselves in it might be beneficial and save time in the long run if more time is spent initially on topics like the Founders and their philosophies. I am sure thinking that will be the case on my next go around in APGOPO.

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