Wednesday, September 28, 2016

King's Survey: Speculating

In which we see Sammy the Speculator go to work on the national debt.
So here’s my question to you, kids: How are we going to keep this thing going? How are we going to keep the republic?
—Damned if I know, Mr. K.
—I’m with Ethan on this one, Mr. K. We don’t have enough information to even begin to answer that.
Not enough information, Sadie? What kind of information do you want? Would you like some statistics? Population figures, perhaps?
—No, more like: what are some of the issues? Give us one.
Any particular kind?
—I dunno. Something where people can’t agree about what to do.
How is that going to help?
—Well, if I know what the arguments are about, I may be able to decide who’s right.
So you want to hear about how other people are thinking.
—Yeah, Mr. K. Sadie's weird that way.
Indeed, Em. Is suspect you’re a little weird that way, too.
—Why thank you, Mr. K.
All right. Here’s something. At the end of the American Revolution, U.S. army veterans were all promised a bonus. A cash payment they were to receive for their service. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that the amount in question was a thousand dollars. Relatively speaking, it wasn’t a huge sum, but something relatively significant.
—Something you could buy a new computer with.
Sure, Ethan. Of course, it would have been more like something you could buy a new horse with, but you have the right idea.
Now here’s the rub. The government is saying two things. The first is: “We’re going to give you that money.” The second is: “We’re broke. So we don’t know when.”
—Wow. That’s pretty lame. How can they do that?
They don’t really have any choice.
—Can’t they just print the money?
There is no government money, Brianna. Banks issue bills, but the U.S. government doesn’t.
—Well then can’t they borrow the money?
Well, in order to borrow it, somebody has to lend it. And the U.S. government has already borrowed a lot. British banksmost of the banking that’s being done at this point is by British banksare not likely to lend money that’s not likely to make money, because they’ll worry they’ll never get it back.
—This isn’t helping, Mr. K. This isn’t an argument. It’s a problem. And I don’t see how we can solve it.
Well, Sadie, I’m Sammy the Speculator, and I’m here to help.
—Here we go.
That’s right, Em. Because I want to unlock the value of your money. Here you are sitting on a certificate that says you’re owed $1000. Which you might getsomeday. Or you might not. And if you do get it, who knows what it’s likely to be worth by then. Maybe there will be inflation. Or maybe (sorry to be indelicate) you’ll be dead. But I have an offer to make: If you sign that certificate over to meright here, right nowI’ll give you $200 in cash. On the spot.
—No way!
Now, Don’t be too hasty, Em. Two hundred dollars is nothing to sneeze at. Think of what you could do with that money. New shoes. For the whole family. Seeds. Cloth. Maybe some delicacies like tea, jelly, candy.
—Not a horse?
Sure. No young thoroughbred. But maybe a decent workhorse. Maybe you have some debts of your own. Be nice to get those off your books, wouldn’t it?
—I don’t trust you.
You don’t have to trust me. You sign the certificate, you get your money.
—Yeah, but what’s in it for you?
For me? Maybe $1000. Maybe nothing. Or something in between. Look: this could pay off for me big time. Or it might not. I’m in the risk business. It’s what I do. I’m not hiding anything here: I could really come out ahead on this deal with 500% profit. Or I could end up with nothing.
—You know something. You have inside information.
I don’t.
—I don’t believe you.
Don’t, then. Assume I’m lying. Even if I have inside information: is that likely to be any use to you? Maybe I have a secret. But if I do, it’s going to stay a secret. And if and when it ceases to be a secret, do you think you’ll be in a position to take advantage of the new information?
Well, that’s your choice. I’ll be leaving town soon. You can hold on to that certificate, and maybe you’ll find out tomorrow that there will be a payoff. Or the next day. Or the week after that. Or the decade after that. Or not.
—Don’t trust him, Em!
—Take the deal, Em!
—Keep the paper! He’s trying to screw you over.
I need a decision, Emily.
—I’ll take the deal. What the hell. It’s only money. Actually, I’m only doing it because I want to see what his angle is.
As you wish. Done.
Now: Kylie. Let’s talk. You’re a widow. A little less carefree than our friend Emily here. Your husband was a true patriot. Alas, he’s left you almost destitute. Three mouths to feed. You literally can’t afford to be like happy-go-lucky Emily. Fortunately, I’m here to help. Would you like to take me up on my offer?
—I guess so.
Not the most enthusiastic of endorsements, but I’ll take it. Adam, how about you?
—Well, I’m no widow.
No. Your husband also died in the war. But Pablo here as proposed to take you as his wife.
—I always knew Adam was hot.
Yes, well, Ethan, nothing makes a widow better-looking than a little money. Pablo marries Adam and he gets all that money. Sound good, Pablo?
—Sure. Very pretty.
So what do you say, Adam? You want to exchange your certificate for a quick $200 in cash?
—Sure. Anything for Pablo.
Excellent. I now have three takers. Oh wait: I forgot! Pablo, your wife was widowed, but you’re also a veteran. Will you also sell me your certificate for 200 bucks?
I’m on a roll! Jonquil? Is that shrug a yes?
Ladies and gentlemen, you saw that nod. And Ethan, how about you?
No? Oh dear Ethan, I hope you’re not being foolishly contrarian here.
—I want $300.
I’m afraid that’s not possible. Given my overhead and marketing expenses
—Three hundred. My final offer.
Very well, then. Three hundred.
—Hey! That’s not fair! Why does he get $300 when I only got $200?
Nature of the business, Em.
—That is so not fair, Mr. whatever-your-name is.
Sammy the Speculator, Ma’am. Jonah?
Absolutely not. My business model won’t sustain that price.
—Fine. $350.
I’m sorry, no.
—Fine. $300.
Let me get back to you after I finish. I’m not sure a second $300 payout is worthwhile. Yin, I now turn to you. Would you like to sell your certificate for $200?
—No. I’m not going to sell.
At all?
—At all.
—Me either.
—I’m with them.
Well, I guess that’s everybody. Jonah: $250.
Fine. (You coulda had the $300.) Now, remember: we started in on this whole thing because Sadie she needed more information about which direction she thought the country should go in. And here we come to a real debate of the kind she requested. You remember our friends Alexander Hamilton and James Madison? Who were they, again?
—They were Founding Fathers.
Yes. Can you be a little more specific?
—Weren’t they Constitution guys?
Right. They wrote The Federalist Papers.
—Oh yeah. With that other guy. James Jay.
John Jay. But yes. Madison and Hamilton were key players in framing and making the case for the Constitution. Now it’s 1790, and George Washington is President (he was chosen unanimously), and Hamilton is his right-hand man, just as he was during the Revolution, when Hamilton served on Washington’s staff. Hamilton is the new Secretary of the Treasury. Madison, for his part, is the protégé of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is Secretary of State, and Madison is a member of Congresshe’s essentially what we’ve come to know as the Speaker of the House.
So this is where I come into the picture. I’m Sammy the Speculator. I’ve racked up all these certificates I’ve bought from all of you at a discount. (By the way, one of my partners in crime, as it were, was Mrs. Abigail Adams, the husband of the vice-president, who bought these without his knowledge. She loved to invest family money.) The question at hand is: how many cents on the dollar should I get? Do I get the full thousand, which would mean something on the order of an $800 profit on my transactions with the Emilys and Kylies of the world?
Alexander Hamilton (and Mrs. Adams) says: Absolutely.
James Madison says: Are you out of your mind?
What do you say?
—I don’t think you should get anything.
Nothing, Brianna? Why not?
—Because you took advantage of those people.
—No he didn’t.
—Yes he did. He took, he, what’s the word, exploited them.
—He told them what the deal would be. He took a risk. He didn’t know what would happen.
—How do you know he didn’t know what would happen, Adam? These rich guys look out for each other.
—Hey, I don’t like the guy, either, Brianna. I took the deal, too. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he shouldn’t get paid. Buyer beware.
—I don’t know if Mr. Sammy Speculator should get nothing. But I don’t know if he should get the full amount the way that the people who held on to their certificates did, either.
—You mean like you, Sadie?
—Well, yeah. But I wasn’t really thinking of myself. I was thinking that the people resisted the temptation should get rewarded for it.
—Yeah, well, Sadie, I’m a poor widow, remember? I had to sell. I was desperate.
—Yeah, Sadie.
—Oh, shush, Emily. You’re just feeling dumb because you sold yourself cheap.
—Sadie! I’m shocked! Shocked!
Mr. Hamilton understands that this situation is complicated. But he argues that the notion of who’s deserving and who’s not is beside the point. The nation is new. It’s weak. And it’s having considerable difficulty convincing foreign lenders and other commercial interests that the United States is a good investment. He wants to redeem the certificates for a hundred cents on the dollar because it will send a positive message to that investor class. It will make them feel more confident about the country, and that this in turn will help the country begin to realize its potential.
—Makes sense to me.
That makes you a part of an emerging Hamiltonian faction, Adam.
—What does Madison say?
What he says, Sadie, is that whatever message it may send to Mr. Hamilton’s rich friends, it sends a terrible message to the ordinary people of the United States. This is a nation of farmers and small producers, not a nation of bankers and speculators.
—So does he think the speculators should get nothing?
No, he actually agrees with you. He thinks they should get a discount on their discount, as it were. Original holders should get the full amount, and Sammy the Speculator should get 20-30%. Which would mean he breaks even, maybe comes out a little ahead.
—I like that.
—Me too.
—Me too.
Looks like a lot of you do.
—So is that what they do?
Nope. They redeem the certificates a hundred cents on the dollar to whoever has them.
Well, most of Congress finds Hamilton’s logic compelling. I also think there were some practical problems with Madison’s proposal. Like there would be no easy way to confirm that the holder of a certificate was really the veteran who originally received it. There might also be people who exchanged themremember, this was a time before there was really money in the way we have it todayto pay debts in ways that had nothing to do with Sammy the Speculator type stuff. Say Paolo here built a new barn for Jonah, for a thousand dollars. It would be a good way to pay.
—It’s interesting, because Hamilton and Madison were on the same side with the Constitution. But they’re on opposite sides here.
An excellent observation, Yin. Before the ratification of the Constitution, both of them were Federalists, and the people who opposed them were known as Antifederalists. But after the ratification of the Constitution, Federalists were increasingly people who were associated with Hamilton. And Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson, became his most vocal critics, even enemies. They were known as Democratic-Republicans, or just Republicans for short.
—Is this how we got the Democrats and Republican parties?
Well, not exactly, Sadie.
—Well, how then?
I’ll tell you tomorrow.
—But Mr. K! The suspense!
I know you’ll shoulder on manfully, Em.
—Thanks, Sammy. Short for Samantha.
Next: Party: a four-letter word

Monday, September 26, 2016

King's Survey: Redeeming Bonds

In which we students struggle with kinds of slavery, and different kinds of freedom

—Another poem on the Smart Board.
That’s right, Emily.
—In History class.
—You a poetry guy, Mr. K?
A little. You know I like Anne Bradstreet; we read a poem of hers earlier this semester. I also like Emily Dickinson; I hope we’ll get to her, maybe next semester.
—This one here is another woman. Strange spelling of her first name, though.
She was named after the slave ship that transported her to Boston. Go ahead and read it for us, Em.
On Being Brought from Africa to America

'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
—That’s a weird poem.
Why do you say that, Adam?
—She’s saying she’s glad to be a slave.
Is that what she’s saying?
—She says that it was “mercy” that she came here.
Is that the mercy? Coming over here?
—I agree with Mr. K.
Really, Jonah? Am I saying anything to agree with?
—I mean that it isn’t being a slave that’s the mercy. It’s that she believes in God.
—This is kind of a dumb argument. She wouldn’t believe in God if she hadn’t come here. So that means she is glad she’s a slave.
Is that so, Em? Do you agree with Adam that the poem weird?
—It’s more than weird. It’s disturbing. It’s offensive.
At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ll ask you: what is it that’s offensive?
—It’s that she would be grateful to be a slave. For any reason.
I understand. But let me push a little further: stipulating that you find it unacceptable, what is her reason?
—Like Jonah said: it’s God.
Yes. But what about God? You want to weigh in, Sadie?
—Redemption. She’s saved.
Right. The reality of God and the savior, Jesus Christ, means that’s she’s saved. She has eternal life.
—Who would want eternal life as a slave?
—She won’t be a slave once she’s dead, Brianna. She’ll live forever. But she’ll be dead as a slave.
—That doesn’t make any sense, Sadie.
—I mean her spirit will live after her body dies. I have a question, Mr. K.
—When was this poem written? Can you give us a little background?
Phillis Wheatley was born in the early 1750s. She was from somewhere around modern-day Gambia or Senegal, in West Africa. She came to Boston in 1761 and was bought by a wealthy couple, the Wheatleys. Their daughter taught her to read. This poem was written in the late 1760s.
—She was writing poetry within a few years of arriving here and learning English?
Wheatley was a prodigy. Her owners were as amazed as you are. They arranged with some English friends to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Actually, there was widespread disbelief that a Negro slave could write a book. That’s why they also arranged for her to meet with a distinguished panel of Bostonians that included John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, and a series of other luminariesmany of them soon to be avowed enemies in the Revolution. After interviewing her, they signed a document attesting to her talent, a testimonial included in her book.
—That’s pretty incredible.
Yes, Kylie, it was. Wheatley was taken to London, where she met Ben Franklin, who was impressed. When the Revolution broke out, she wrote a poem in honor of George Washington, who invited her to meet him, something she did just before he left Boston for New York in 1776. About the only person who didn’t believe Wheatley was for real was Thomas Jefferson, who rejected the notion that a Negro could possibly produce a work of art.
—What did she say about Washington?
Here, I’ll call it up on the Smart Board. I’ll read the last stanza:
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.
—I don’t know if I like this, either.
Like what, Em?
—The poem.
What don’t you like?
—It’s not so much what it says. It just seems … stiff. “Proceed great chief!” It’s so phony.
Well, the tone is typical of 18th century poetry. Actually, Wheatley has been criticized for being a little too derivative, too imitative, of poets like Alexander Pope, the leading British poet of the time. But again, this tendency is indicative of what we’ve been discussing: her uncanny ability to pick up language. Yes, Adam.
—I still think it’s a little sick that she’s saying she’s OK with slavery.
I understand that view. And indeed, many African Americans in the last two centuries have shared it. The black literary critic Henry Louis Gates has called this piece “the most reviled poem in African American literature.” But I don’t think that’s the whole story here. Here: let me call up yet another Wheatley poem. This one was written in honor of the Earl of Dartmouth, the man who ran the effort to defeat the American Revolution (and the man for whom Dartmouth College is named):
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Does this change your mind any, Adam?
—Doesn’t really change I think about the other poem.
Fair enough. Let’s go back to that. So far we’ve been focusing on the first half. Now let’s look at the rest of it. The next line is
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
What does this mean?
—She’s saying other people are racist. That they view black people as evil.
Good, Jonquil. See that she uses quotation marks: she’s speaking in someone else’s voice, presumably a white person. Now let’s zero in on the final lines:
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
So what is she saying here?
—She’s saying that even black people can go to heaven.
Yes, Jonquil. Negroes black as Cain can be refined and join the angelic train. Question: Who was Cain?
—That’s from the Bible.
Correct, Jonah. Can you be more specific? Anyone?
—Wasn’t there a brother thing? Cain and Abel?
—Cain killed Abel.
Right. Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer, Abel a shepherd. They both made offerings to God, but God was more impressed with Abel’s gift than he was with Cain’s. A jealous Cain killed Abel. When God asked Cain were Abel was, he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (The correct answer, of course, was yes.) God cursed Cain by forcing him to wander the earth. So what does Wheatley mean when she describes “Negroes black as Cain?”
—That they’re cursed. To wander across the ocean.
—Yeah, but even though they’re cursed they can still be saved.
Good. Oh, by the way: “Cane” here is also a pun. Can you figure out what for?
—Candy cane?
—Sugar cane?
Right! Why is that relevant here?
—Because sugar is sweet?
Not exactly. What do you know about slavery? What kind of work did slaves do?
—They picked cotton.
Well yes, but that was later. I guess we didn’t really cover this. Slaves in the Caribbean in particular processed sugar cane. It was backbreaking work. Remember how we talked about the colonists’ mania for tea? A lot of them had sugar with that tea. Sugar was relatively new in the western world in the 18th century. People were crazy about it. So it fueled the slave trade. Sweetness rested on a foundation of brutality. So you’re right in that there is (ironic) relevance here. And another thing: what color is sugar?
Yes. But that’s after it’s processedor, to use Wheatley’s term, “refined,” which is what we typically use in everyday life even now. But what color is sugar first?
—That’s pretty funny.
—It isn’t funny, Jonah.
—No, I mean it’s cool. I mean clever. It’s cool symbolism. She’s a good writer.
 Now let’s approach this from another angle. That second to last line has four commas. There’s one after each of the first three words: “remember,” “Christians,” and “Negroes.” What does a comma do?
—It makes you stop.
—No that’s a period. A comma more like makes you slow down.
It can also change the way you read a line. Is Wheatley telling Christians to remember Negroes? Or Negroes to remember Christians?
—There’s also italics.
That’s a good point, Kylie. I should have mentioned that. Both Christians and Negroes are italicized. So is Cain. Who is it that Wheatley is comparing to Cain? Are Negroes black as Cain? Or are Christians (which is to say born sinners) black as Cain?
You think so, Kylie?
Kylie, tell me what you really think. Don’t take your cue from the content or tone of my question.
—I think she’s saying both. I think she’s saying that both black and white people are like Cain.
Is she also saying that black and white people can “join the angelic train?”
And where is that train going?
—To heaven?
Are you asking me or telling me, Kylie?
—Um, telling you, I guess. Both Negroes and Christians—I mean white Christians and black Christians—can go to heaven.
Understood. One more question, Kylie: Do you like this poem?
—Do I like it?
Yes. I’m asking if you like it.
—I don’t know.
—Why is her saying “I don’t know” good?
Because, Adam, she’s giving me her honest judgment. It appears that figuring out what she thinks and saying so doesn’t come naturally to her. It does seem to come naturally to you. You’ve been clear from the start that you don’t like this poem. Is that still the case?
—Yeah, it is.
Even though I’ve given you evidence that Wheatley is not the uncritical advocate of slavery you fear that she is?
—I still don’t like it.
Is that because the quantity of the evidence is insufficient? Or is it because the quality of that evidence is insufficient?
—I’m not sure. I think what may bother me is the way she uses her religion to justify slavery.
Is that what she’s doing?
—Basically, yeah. I get that she is critical of slavery, but she’s basically saying that doesn’t matter. It’s not important. Believing in God is what matters.
Is believing in God a problem?
—Well, hey, people can believe what they want. I just think people sometimes use religion as a crutch.
A crutch.
—Yeah. When they can’t deal with reality they turn to God.
Which is counterproductive. Might even make it easier to enslave people.
Brianna, you’re nodding your head.
—I think he’s right.
And Emily, you’ve been in the Adam camp from the start of class. Are you still are, right?
Fair enough. Do the rest of you? Are we agreed that the Phillis Wheatley we meet in this poem is a talented, but sadly misguided, girl of about your age?
—I’m not sure I want to say that.
Why not, Yin?
—It seems harsh. She’s doing the best she can with a bad situation. Doesn’t seem fair to say she’s making things worse.
—I’m not saying she’s making things worse.
—You just said she’s making it easier to enslave people, Adam.
—Mr. K. said that. I didn’t.
—But you agreed.
—I meant more that the people who are enslaving her are taking advantage of her.
They’re taking advantage of her emotional vulnerability, Adam? They’re exploiting her faith?
—Yeah, I guess you could say that.
And her faith is a form of weakness?
—I dunno. That’s a tough one. But yes, I guess it is.
—I think it’s really wrong to judge.
Don’t we have to, Yin?
—Why do we have to judge? We don’t know what she was dealing with.
Well, that’s certainly true. None of us are eighteenth century slaves. And this of course is a poem; by definition the portrayal here has been edited, has been manipulated, in some way. (I’m assuming the voice we’re hearing here is that of Wheatley herself, which might be a mistake.) In fact, we know this isn’t the whole story in the World of Wheatley: I’ve shown you that she has expressed different sentiments about slavery in a different poem that was published in the same book. So we can’t jump to any conclusions. That’s exactly what I’ve been working toward trying to get some of your classmates to avoid. And yet …
—And yet what?
Well, I don’t know that you’re dealing with either, Yin.
—I don’t understand your point.
Well, look: I’m your teacher. You’re my student. As such, I’m expected to treat you like every other student. But at the same time, in talking with you, in dealing with you, I have to make decisions about who I think you are: what you want to hear from me, what you need to hear from me, what I think will work best in educating you within the boundaries set by the law, by the school, and the limits of our respective abilities. (“You,” by the way can be a particular student, the particular set of students I have in the room, adolescents generally, or some other group of people.) I have to make judgments based on incomplete information. This is something every single one of us does every single day. Right now it’s my job to do it. You can see I handled Kylie differently a minute ago than I handled Adam. And you’ll note that I haven’t asked Paolo over there, who’s been silent today, and can remain so if he’d like, any questions. I’m guessing that this is not the right moment to put him on the spot by demanding he say something. But I’m guessing it is the right moment to remind him that I know he’s here, and to refocus what may or may not be his flagging attention. I’m exercising my professional judgment here to the best ofdare I say?God-given ability.
Might I make mistakes in making these various choices? There’s no doubt about it. Maybe I’m selling Kylie a little short in my estimation of her willingness to take a firm positionor maybe, as you’re arguing, my insistence on taking a position is misplaced. Maybe I’ve hurt Adam’s feelings in ways I failed to anticipate or will never realize. And maybe Paolo is bursting at the seams ready to say something, or maybe I’ve made it less likely, rather than more likely, that he’ll do his homework tonight. Care to weigh in, Paolo? You can just shake your head.
That’s a no. Back to our friend Phillis Wheatley. There are lots of ways to read this poem, and to go back to Emily’s initial observation, we’re reading it in a History class rather than an English class. I mentioned the English poet Alexander Pope in passing, but the truth is that I’m not interested in the aesthetics of this poem. I’m much more interested in it as a snapshot of a life in motiona life in the past that we’re making a necessarily partial effort to understand. I told you that as a teacher I have to exercise my professional judgment. Right now I’m trying to get you to exercise your personal judgment. Note that key verb: exercise. My hope is that by asking you to do this regularly, in this figurative gymnasium we call a classroom, you’ll get better at doing it when you leave. But let me replace that word “hope” with a different one: faith. It’s my faith that this little ritual we’re doing will allow us to get betterin multiple senses of that term. Perhaps that’s my crutch, Adam.
—Mr. K., what became of Phillis Wheatley?
The story is not an especially happy one, Sadie. She did receive her freedom, but that appears to have been something of a mixed blessing, because she struggled to survive. She tried, and failed to get a second book published. (So many of her poems were written in honor of prominent people, I suspect, because she depended on patronage, as so many artists do in one form or another.) In 1778 Wheatley married a man named John Peters, about whom not much is known, although he was apparently frequently in debt. Phillis Wheatley, now Peters, had three children with whom, all of whom died in childhood. The third died in childbirth, taking the poet with her, in 1784. She would have been about 35 years old.
—That’s so sad.
Yes, in some ways it was. On the other hand, a slave who wrote her way to freedom and produced work that’s still being read centuries later ain’t a bad lifetime’s work. Many of us would consider ourselves lucky and satisfied to have done the same, whether or not we were slaves.
Of course, there were other ways a slave could do meaningful work. We don’t know the names of most of the people who participated in the Stono slave rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina (it was apparently led by a man named Jemmy), or the New York uprising of 1741, or the followers of Gabriel Prosser who led another revolt in Virginia in 1800. Many of them died in unsuccessful fights for freedom. Which would eventually come. Their voices may be a little harder to hear. But with a discerning ear, you might be able to apprehend them, and evaluate their stories like we just did Wheatley’s. Or the far more ordinary voices of those around you. They might prove to be more interesting and unexpected than you might think.
See youI mean hear youtomorrow.
Next: Speculating on the new republic

Friday, September 23, 2016

King's Survey: Test Prep

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!
Yes. And?
—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?
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?
—I guess?
C’mon Ethan!
Touché, Em. Let’s try again. Who chooses the electors?
—The people.
Yes, Adam. And who chooses the president?
—The electors.
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?
—The citizens?
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?
Sure, Sadie.
—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.
Other thing?
—Contextual Powers.
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 documentthat 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 somethingoh 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?
—Three times.
—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 Congressas 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?
—Probably not.
—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 youmost of you, I hopewill 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 reactionin some cases, I prod you to reactin 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, Emand 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?