Education: What’s It All About?

As a professor of American history for more than twenty years now, I have ceased to be surprised by the lack of knowledge our students bring to the classroom. American history—particularly early American history—is like a foreign language to many. The majority can still identify George Washington, and most know there was a Civil War, but they’re not sure when it happened. The Constitution is virtually an unknown document when it comes to its basic provisions. This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the writing of the Constitution. I want my students to understand why that is significant. This is also the anniversary of the writing of the Federalist Papers, the best explanation of what those constitutional provisions meant to those who crafted that founding document. Yet how many students, indeed how many Americans of any age, have any idea that the Federalist Papers exist? That’s “old” stuff. Why should we be concerned with it?

Sometimes our students, even at a Christian evangelical university, are so enmeshed in the culture that they know little else. Their knowledge of our history goes back no further than what happened in their own memory, and their grasp of current affairs may be limited to what impacts them directly.  Some are more attuned to the latest cultural trend than to the pressing issues of the day:

A university education is supposed to be a path toward greater comprehension of life and its meaning. It’s supposed to develop productive people who make their impact on our society for the better. But when you combine the dumbing down of the system with bad economic times, here is what you get instead:

Standards need to be raised across the board. A high school diploma should mean you’ve actually learned something. A college degree should indicate you are now prepared to make your mark because you have grappled with the questions of God, man, and meaning, have developed your powers of critical thinking, and are now ready to make your mark on the culture rather than the culture molding you. That’s my goal for my students as I teach them. It’s gratifying when that occurs.

So I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the students I’ve taught over the years—whether at Indiana Wesleyan University, Regent University, Patrick Henry College, or Southeastern University—and let them know I’ve appreciated the time spent with all of them. I also want them to know how proud [in the proper sense of the term] I am that they have allowed the Lord to use them for good in our world. I’m reminded of this admonition from the apostle Paul to Timothy:

The things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men [and women] who will be able to teach others also. … Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

Let’s all remain faithful to this charge.

Congressional Limitations

Tomorrow, Americans will vote for every seat in the House of Representatives and about 1/3 of Senate seats. The new Congress will convene in late January. As it does, it needs a few reminders. These come from the U.S. Constitution. In particular, each new member of Congress ought to reflect on Article One, Section 8, which deals with the taxing power and the authority for legislation.

It says,

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States; …

First, this section lays out the three general purposes for which Congress can tax the people. The first is to pay the debts of the nation [we certainly have those, but they aren’t being paid, are they?]; the second is to provide for our national defense [so money spent on the armed forces is definitely constitutional]; the third is to provide for the general welfare. That third purpose has been taken completely out of context.

How do I know? Go to James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, who wrote in The Federalist Papers, number 41, that some people were opposing the proposed Constitution on the grounds that the provision quoted above “amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare.”

That so-called objection was ridiculous, Madison maintained, because just after that provision there existed a list of specific powers granted to the Congress to carry out those three purposes. Today we refer to those as the enumerated powers. Here’s Madison’s description of how they limit the three general purposes:

But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon? If the different parts of the same instrument ought to be so expounded, as to give meaning to every part which will bear it, shall one part of the same sentence be excluded altogether from a share in the meaning; and shall the more doubtful and indefinite terms be retained in their full extent, and the clear and precise expressions be denied any signification whatsoever? For what purpose could the enumeration of particular powers be inserted, if these and all others were meant to be included in the preceding general power? Nothing is more natural nor common than first to use a general phrase, and then to explain and qualify it by a recital of particulars. But the idea of an enumeration of particulars which neither explain nor qualify the general meaning, and can have no other effect than to confound and mislead, is an absurdity, which, as we are reduced to the dilemma of charging either on the authors of the objection or on the authors of the Constitution, we must take the liberty of supposing, had not its origin with the latter.

Why do I take time to mention this the day before the elections? Members of Congress, be they old or new, need to be reminded that they are not gods. They are not omnipotent; neither are they omniscient [though some would have you believe they possess both qualities]. The Constitution binds them to carry out limited powers.

It’s time we held them to the fundamental law of this republic. Wherever you are, remind your congressman. If enough of us take this seriously, they might have second thoughts with respect to their grandiose plans to remake America in their image.

What Real Hearings Would Be Like

I don’t watch Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I have much better things to do than see a preordained script followed. What’s taking place in the Kagan hearings right now is nothing but a show for the cameras. You won’t hear the nominee say anything of substance.

Then again, that’s really not necessary in her case. We may play a game about not knowing what she believes, but everyone really does know already. The key is for her not to tell.

The really sad part is that even if she were to tell all, she would still be confirmed. If she said the Constitution should be trampled and torn into shreds, she would be confirmed. It’s simply a matter of math—too many Democrats who will vote for her no matter what.

Hearings should get to the bottom of a nominee’s judicial philosophy. The nominee should be required to respond to specific questions about how he or she would determine constitutionality in various cases. Nominees should say why they agree or disagree with decisions the Court has made in the past. The funny thing is that Elena Kagan once wrote that those were what the hearings should be like. Apparently, she doesn’t agree with herself anymore.

There should be one overriding qualification: does the nominee believe that the Constitution, as originally understood, is the law of the land. If someone should argue that no one can know how it was originally understood, that’s an invalid argument. We have the Federalist Papers, we have the notes from the Constitutional Convention, and we have other commentaries from that period, particularly the one written by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story. Original intent is not a mystery.

Of course, we shouldn’t even be so concerned about who sits on the Supreme Court. If it were to stay within constitutional limitations, it wouldn’t be deciding the future of the country on a series of 5-4 votes anyway. Alexander Hamilton declared that the federal courts would be the weakest of the three branches. The ascendancy of the philosophy of the “living Constitution” changed that—and not for the better.

Federalism. Does anyone remember that? It’s when we have three co-equal and balancing branches of the government, each keeping a check on the others. It would be nice to get back to that basic understanding once again.

The "Stupid" Strategy

Have you noticed the strategy employed by the Democrats over the past three decades? You might have to be as old as I am to see the pattern, but it’s now very obvious. I call it the “stupid” strategy, which is aimed at any Republican who is a threat to actually win the presidency or any other high office.

It all started with Ronald Reagan. When he ran against President Carter in 1980, the whispers began, then rose to a crescendo: he’s a dumb actor; he’s simplistic; he just reads everything from little cards; he needs a nap every afternoon; he’s not smart enough to be president. Democratic functionary Clark Clifford famously referred to Reagan as an “amiable dunce.”

Well, that amiable dunce won the Cold War.

They tried it, to a lesser degree, with George Bush in 1988 when he squared off against Michael Dukakis. How could he possibly match the policy wonkness of the former governor of Massachusetts?

It was his son, though, George W. Bush, who had to weather the stronger attack. He was just a cowboy, out of his league, merely a C student. He wasn’t smart enough to lead the country. What we needed was that super-smart challenger Al Gore. After all, he was on the cutting edge of understanding that we were all going to die unless we ceased emitting carbon. He was the champion of the intellectual elite.

In the Bush reelection year of 2004, John Kerry was the epitome of all that was cosmopolitan, cultured, and oh-so-French. Bush couldn’t even compete with Sen. Kerry’s brain power. Or so we were told.

In 2008, progressives nearly fainted when Sarah Palin was added to the Republican ticket. How could this Caribou Barbie be a serious vice presidential candidate? In fact, they realized she was a serious candidate, so the strategy was employed once again—ridicule her as a lightweight. Ignore her accomplishments as Alaska’s governor and paint her as a joke. The joke now appears to be on them as she is more influential than ever.

But of course she’s influential in circles of low-educated, backward folks who inhabit the great hinterland between the beautiful people who populate the coasts. You know, the area where no one of their social status should ever have to hang out.

That’s right, she’s the darling of those stupid Tea Partiers. Now the progressive elite have an entire class of people to denigrate. Unfortunately for them, a New York Times story recently carried the strange news that those despised Tea Partiers were actually better educated than the general population and they are financially better off than the national average.

That’s disturbing to the powers-that-be. President Obama made fun of them last week. He thinks their ideas are radical and foolish. Does he even know the source of those ideas?

If he finds their ideas ludicrous, he must really be in stitches over the Federalist Papers and the Constitution—because that’s where the ideas come from.

It’s time we wise up to the “stupid” strategy and see it for what it really is: a false portrayal of political opponents that is downright dishonest.

Government Controlling Itself?

I don’t have a problem with government. I believe it is a God-ordained institution that is to protect citizens of a nation. Whenever it stays within those boundaries, it is a servant of God.

What I do have a problem with is government out of control.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and one of the principal authors of the Federalist Papers, in discussing the reason for the checks and balances incorporated into the federal government, noted in Federalist 51:

It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

Most governments have never had trouble controlling the governed, but they nearly all struggle with the second half of the equation—controlling themselves. That’s the problem when you have people running them; angels would be a better option. However, that’s not going to happen.

What we’re experiencing now is the fear Madison expressed in that quote: the government no longer controls itself. Beginning with Woodrow Wilson, then FDR, followed later by LBJ, we have taken one step after another toward potential tyranny. It is becoming ever more blatant.

The waste has become an epidemic. What will the current Congress do about it?

That’s about what I would expect.

So what are we going to do about it? There is a way to get a new Congress. November can’t come too soon.

The Kingdom of Congress

Let’s pause briefly for a recalibration of our thinking.

We spend a lot of time contemplating what Congress is doing—new pieces of legislation, the strategies for passing them, etc.

An Old Document that No One Reads Anymore

Stop and remember something: Congress was originally set up with very limited powers. The United States Constitution did not erect a tribunal that could legislate on any matter it deemed fit.

In Article One, Section 4, we find the following wording: “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year.” Why was that even inserted? The easy answer is this: Congress had such limited authority for legislation that it might not need to meet every year; this phrase was included to ensure that the people (in the House) and the state governments (in the Senate) would have input into the federal government, keeping it from becoming primarily an executive branch.

The concern was that Congress could be preempted.

During the ratification debates on the proposed Constitution, some opponents objected to what they perceived would be too powerful a federal government. James Madison, writing in what we now call Federalist #45, responded to those objections in these words:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

In other words, this Constitution did not set up a government that could legislate on all matters; it was limited in its scope.

Yet what do we see now? We don’t have to worry about making sure that Congress meets once every year. The struggle now is to make them go home once in a while. Congress has taken upon itself (with a generous nod from the federal judiciary) authority it doesn’t possess. It now tries to legislate on everything.

Healthcare is the most prominent issue at present. If you were to seek the place in the Constitution where it says Congress has power to legislate on this matter, you would come away empty.

Another problem that has arisen with our new imperial Congress is that individuals have become mini-dictators. Committee chairs set up kingdoms. The role of Speaker of the House carries with it virtually unlimited authority with respect to how that body functions.

The imperiousness has risen to unprecedented levels.

Those statements are not fabricated. Speaker Pelosi actually uttered those very words.

There is an old saying/joke that takes on greater meaning with each passing year: Congress has adjourned, the Republic is safe.

It’s time to once again be governed by the rule of law; it’s time to return to constitutional limitations.