At our school we recently completed a constitution-building experiment. For two months our Eagles divided into small groups that met every Wednesday morning for forty-five minutes to discuss, debate and then write a constitution of their choosing. The assignment was: “Design a constitution for a society in which you would like to live.” The resulting sessions were spirited and productive.
Perhaps the most interesting finding which emerged from this exercise was how the provisions of the student constitutions reflected principles which are the hallmarks of the political, moral and legal tradition of the western democracies. In other words, the spirit of their constitutions is very much in keeping with principles which have influenced constitution writing since the so-called “Age of Revolution” of the years 1775 to 1825.
The spirit of what the Eagles created is encapsulated in the constitutional preambles they wrote which contained phrases such as “Everyone is equal” and “You can say or do anything as long as it doesn’t negatively affect anyone else.”
When they presented their work to the Studio, I was immediately struck by the clear connection between their words and the Enlightenment principles of the French Revolution (“Everyone is equal”) as well as Edmund Burke’s conservative critique of that revolution (“You can say or do anything as long as it doesn’t . . .”).
I also think it worth noting that these constitutions were not coached; they were the product of independent expression. Before beginning their work, the Eagles were not instructed how to write a constitution nor were they given a lesson in constitutional law or the history of political ideas since 1776. What they were provided was a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and examples of constitutional preambles such as the preamble to the United States Constitution. What followed was mimesis.
None of this is to say that the study of political thought, constitutional law and modern world history are not valuable exercises. Quite the contrary. This exercise was rather a form of pedagogical experiment: Since our Eagles take very seriously notions of fairness and self-determination and are encouraged to do so by the very processes of the Acton Academy model, I thought it useful to provide them with an opportunity to produce a social contract for an entire society.
I arrived at this conclusion since, at the beginning of each year, our Eagles are tasked with producing a series of contracts that govern how our Studio will function over the coming year. These contracts involve rules of discussion; rules of personal and inter-personal conduct; the treatment of Studio equipment; and involve personal excellence pledges.
If the Eagles are expected to create a Studio Contract, why not allow them to write a Social Contract?
I must admit that I am not surprised that a group of young students, between the ages of 8 and 12, are capable of putting into their constitutions the moral and philosophical principles associated with our political and legal systems.
The ideas and rules which govern our civic culture are, after all, topics of conversation in many homes and make their way into television programs, popular literature, the dramatic and performing arts, the athletic culture. Which is to say that perhaps it is not so outlandish to imagine that our Eagles -and children/young adults generally- are already engaging with sophisticated ideas about justice, fairness, equality and merit.
When I work with students on their grammar I like to tell them that they already are quite adept at employing grammatical rules. After all, they know how to speak in complete sentences and they can recognize, both orally and in print, sentences and phrases that are structured incorrectly.
I like mentioning to them that conjugating verbs is also something that they do nearly effortlessly, otherwise they would not be able to converse. In my experience, this notion that we already possess a certain degree of fluency in speech (and therefore thought) is motivational and leads to a reduction in feelings of fear towards grammar.
I also find that this approach is a way of curbing any false notion that grammar and the writing of fluent sentences and essays is somehow an elitist exercise reserved for the very few. In the fields of philosophy, politics, history and morality/ethics, I use a similar approach.
If our children and young adults are raised within our broader civic culture and are regularly exposed to the language of public ethics, personal responsibility and citizenship; if they are accustomed to living and working collaboratively in a family, school and team environment, why shouldn’t we assume that they also possess a degree of fluency in the fields of ethics, philosophy, morality and civics?
My purpose now is to find out just how fluent our Eagles are and to challenge them to apply their already existing critical thinking skills to the questions which govern human affairs; our Studio being merely a microcosm of the city, province and country in which they live. That is how we do Civilization at Infinity School.
-Mr. Jeremy, Lead Guide