My favorite quotation for this year’s national holiday comes from Michael Waldman’s recent book, The Second Amendment: A Biography. In the book’s first chapter, Waldman says this about James Madison’s preparation for the Constitutional Convention:
And once it [the Constitutional Convention] had been scheduled, he drove himself to study world political systems, trying to understand how republics rise or fall. Thomas Jefferson sent him two hundred books from Paris for the cram session. Even before arriving in Philadelphia [in the summer of 1783], Madison had sketched out a new approach, one with a strong central government and power divided among three branches: legislative, executive and judicial.
Two thoughts prompt me to record this quotation today.
First, amidst pedagogical conversations about the value of homework , I like to consider the term as a metaphor for preparation. Be sure to do your homework, we say. James Madison clearly did his before the convention. It also occurs to me that he had strong reasons for doing so. When we teachers require students to do homework, let’s work hard to make these studies meaningful. Learning happens most durably with clear purpose that matters to the learner. As with James Madison, such learning propels people towards independence.
Second, a colleague once articulated to me and I see regular evidence supporting his idea that a strong strain of what he called anti-intellectualism runs through American culture. I know firsthand about this. A family friend once reacted to my National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship by expressing disapproval that his hard-earned tax dollars had gone to such ventures. In the context of his particular response and what it represents more generally, I remember James Madison’s commitment to reading. Thank heavens for people who have the skills and take the time to study–history, for example–in order to help move this country toward a more perfect union. Historical examples show me that true patriots understand and support the value of such intellectual pursuits. Teachers and students should show pride in minds sharpened by reading–both broad and deep reading.