Classroom Democracy, Part III: The Life of Constitutions

An agile Constitution can be changed, so that the weaknesses can be fixed and not become avenues for anti-democratic forces. This is as true for the constitutions in Classroom Democracies as the constitutions in Federal Republics. Of my classes last semester, one added a Supreme Court, one established a Lebanon-style division of offices, and one abolished the Assembly.

The Classroom: A People-Powered Polis

1. The Supreme Court

Classroom Democracy builds rational academic behavior by exposing students to multiple perspectives through peer interaction. Different options, such as whether to spend a day watching a movie or studying for an exam, are considered by the students. Regular elections rewards students who have good study skills to share, and allows them to act as mentors for students who are not so knowledgeable. Democracy is very Vygotskian, as it relies on dialog and zones of proximal development.

However, social interaction can be stressful. It requires students to consciously weight alternatives, which is mentally more taxing than trusting an authority figure. When the teacher is dedicated to democracy, the students cannot revert easily to their role of passive receptacles of knowledge. One class, however, succeeded in doing just that…

Under Judges Students Rule?

While maintaining the mechanisms of Assembly, President, and Government, one class changed their constitution to create a Supreme Court of eight Justices. The Justices were appointed for life, and could not easily be impeached (both a 2/3rds majority of the Assembly and a majority of the Supreme Court would be needed to remove a justice). The Supreme Court “oversaw” the actions of the Prime Minister, such that the Prime Minister’s sole responsibility became merely asking the Supreme Court how to decide issues.

The students on the Supreme Court were solid students and achievement-oriented. They ran the class is a solid fashion. However, the lack of democratic dialog was notable. The individual perspectives of the Students no longer mattered, as decisions were decided for them by the Supreme Court.

2. Confessionalism

In one class, a small faction of extroverted and smart students quickly established dominance. They noted that students were more likely to vote for a name proposed than for students not yet nominated. Therefore, they purposefully nominated each one of their Party immediately. They were typically able to acquire a 2/3rds vote in the Assembly just among their faction, which let them run the class as they saw fit.

Apartheid Classroom Democracy?

A month or so into the semester, a student privately informed me that he had formed another faction and they would try to change the direction of the class. The mimicked the tactics of the ruling faction, and were able to achieve slightly more than a 1/3rd vote of the Assembly.

Electing a President requires a 2/3rds majority, and neither faction was going to allow a member for the other to be President. Assembly after Assembly was dissolved, unable to create a government. It was a great teachable moment when I discussed how Iraq suffered similar problems under a similar constitution.

The leaders of the factions approached me after class, asking me what would happen because no time was left for teaching after a day full of parliamentary maneuvers. I mentioned I did not know, because I believed in Classroom Democracy.

Their solution was clever. Their amendment would separate the class into three groups, or “Confessions.” Each of the original factions would form one Confession, and the rest of the students would move to a third Confession. They established that the President would always come from one of the original Confessions, the Prime Minister would always come from the other, and a new ceremonial position, the Speaker of the Assembly, would be reserved for the third Confession.

The Confessionalist government, which was styled after Lebanon’s Constitution, ended the factional strife and allowed governments to be rapidly formed. However, as with the Class that established a Supreme Court, it did diminish meaningful discussion about how classes should be run.

3. The Abolition of the Assembly

The third class went in an opposite direction. While the Jurist and Confessionalist classes decided to reduce the amount of discussion by adding to the Constitution, this Class desired more conversation. After considerable in-class and out-of-class discussion, they amended the Constitution to dramatically restructure the Assembly.

A Democracy of the Academy

According to the Constitution, the Assembly is elected through Proportional Parliamentary Representation. However, this class decided that the Class itself would be the Assembly, creating an “Assembly-of-the-Whole” which was not elected because every student would receive one vote. This had the advantage of giving every student direct say over who would be the President, and direct input on Confidence votes for the Prime Minister. This change was made too late in the semester to observe its long term effects, but I was impressed by the contemplation that went into the alteration.

Classroom Democracy, a tdaxp series
1. A Parliament of Scholars
2. A Defense of Republics
3. The Life of Constitutions
4. The Evolution of Learning
5. Bibliography

4 thoughts on “Classroom Democracy, Part III: The Life of Constitutions”

  1. Purpleslog —

    I’ve tried this system for three semesters, and each time the mix is different. The first time was at a community college in Iowa teaching computer applications, the second was with Political Science and International Studies majors with international politics, and this time is with Intro to American Government students (which is a gen ed requirement). This time and last are both at UNL.

    The UNL classes are actually recitations for a large seminar. Each of my sections are around 20 students, though the class as a whole is about 200.

    Thanks for the kind words! 🙂

  2. Hi Dan,

    Very interesting post. And classroom technique.

    You might check out the later chapters of Kagan’s The Pelopponesian War where the war weary and desperate Athenians, the arch-democrats of Greece, swung between democracy and experiments with moderate and radical oligarchy.

  3. Mark,

    Props for the encouragement!

    I haven’t read that book by Hanson yet, but I remember watching his talk on it on C-SPAN a while ago. He mentioned the Spartans trying to burn crops that were not flammable, destroying thatched homes easily replaced, etc. With attribution, I told that same story to my students and they loved it.

    One thing that excites me about this method is how I can use not just history, but also repeatable economic games, to build an intellectual defense of classroom democracy. Repeated economic games are just the environments where cooperation makes the most sense.

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