I once told Jay Mathews of the Washington Post that I would not object to preparing my students for externally prepared tests so long as outsiders did not dictate how I prepared my students for those tests. I have a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of mandatory pacing guides, or even necessarily mandatory sequences of units, because it removes from me as a teacher what is of great importance - my ability to use knowledge of my students and my skill as a teacher to make the learning experience for those students as effective as possible. This approach I take on greater responsibility and do more work, but my experience has been the results are more salutory for both the students and for me as a teacher.
In the approach I have described, I am balancing the requirement to ensure that my students meet some external standard of what they should learn at the same time as I fulfill my professional and personal responsibility to the reality of who they are. And I think the same approach is roughly applicable when we consider oversight and impeachment.
Please note - I did say ROUGHLY applicable. Here I am placing the Congress of the United States in a position roughly equivalent to my role as teacher. I am answerable to the school authorities, and the Members and Senators are answerable to their constituents. I am also answerable to my students, for whom I have multiple responsibilities:
- to determine what they currently know and can do
- to help them develop the knowledge and skill to do more
- to move them towards the goal(s) that are the reason I have been given my pedagogical responsibility
Perhaps it is hard to see the Congress as having responsibilities that parallel these, but it should not be, even though we as constituents are both the authority to whom they have to answer and the students whom they have to empower. Perhaps it is because my concept of instruction in shaped by the thoughts of Parker Palmer in his books, most notably The Courage to Teach, and my ideas of leadership are greatly influenced by the work of Robert Greenleaf’s model of Servant Leadership. I will not take an excursus to fully explore the thought of either man. Let me note that Palmer sees teaching as a series of overlapping relationships - between teacher and student, among students, between people and the curriculum - and Greenleaf bases his model of leadership on the example of Leo in Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East I should also note that both men were or became Quakers, and we Friends have a strong ethic of seeing the individual as s/he is. I realize that these models may not appeal to those of different backgrounds or orientations, but please bear with me as I make this brief intellectual exploration.
In the model of teaching that I follow one cannot have a lockstep or cookbook approach to what occurs within the classroom. Each groups of students is unique, being as it is also a collection of unique individuals. There are elements of commonality, but one needs to carefully observe and listen to ascertain what is common and what may be different . As my curricular responsibility is government, it is especially important that I also pay attention to current issues about government, as these will create the concerns with which my students arrive, and may well shape the questions with which they wrestle simultaneously with the material I am required to ensure they understand.
The Congress has a responsibility that is externally imposed. To some degree We the People are the authority to whom they answer, but it is also shaped by the document whose Preamble begins with those words. The external test which should guide their actions is the intent and framework established by We the People through that document, through more than 200 years of experience, of wrestling with how to actualize the the promise contained therein. One reason I do not accept the idea of rigid interpretation a la Scalia is that the students - the people and the nation - are not the same, and the document and the system it creates cannot be so rigid that we must formally amend it in order to adapt to new situations. Government leaders, regardless of the branch, need to listen and observe, and determine how to meet the needs of the people while remaining responsible to the curriculum - the principles of the Constitution.
I am concentrating on the Congress not merely because it is the only branch currently controlled by Democrats. I look at the Congress because it is the branch most immediately responsible for and to the people. One could I suppose argue that the Congress in passing laws might be in the role of the school board and the Executive as the teacher who then applies things, except that the Executive is too removed from the people. Still, I suppose a President who rigidly applies an ideology regardless of the needs of the people for whom he is supposed to be responsible does bear some parallel to the teacher who slavishly follows a cookbook instructional approach that is not meeting the needs of the student before him. Still, I would view the more accurate parallel in that case being the principal or superintendent or even school board who is insisting on the step by step cookbook approach even when the results are not increasing the skill and knowledge of the students. It is not an exact parallel.
So let me return to the role of the Congress. The Constitution presumes a balance of power, a separation, with checks and balances, even if those phrases do not specifically appear within the document itself. In this regard the intent of the Founders is clear. And as designed the Congress is given the greatest responsibility and the largest share of power, if for no other reason that as designed the only part of the government directly answerable to the people was the House of Representatives. Nothing can become law without their acquiescence, all revenue bills must start therein, and the ultimate control over the other branches - impeachment - starts with the People’s House.
But that is the ULTIMATE control. A teacher who must always raise his voice, threaten punishment, call for an administrator, rarely is effective in having the students learn. There may be occasions for each of these approaches, but if the teacher first ensures that the lessons connect with the students, that the students feel that teacher has some concern about them and their needs (Palmer’s idea of relationships) then most classroom behavior problems disappear and the teacher can function as the one helping the students learn and learn how to learn - s/he becomes Greenleaf’s servant leader: responsible and empowering without having to dictate.
For our system of government to work there must be accountability. One reason no branch can act totally independently is that such an approach is a prescription for tyranny. Our Founders knew this. And over time it became clear that for Congress to determine what changes to the law were necessary it needed to examine - how current laws were operating, whether public officials responsible for carrying out the laws were failing to do as the Congress intended because they did not understand, because the law was flawed, or because they were willfully ignoring the intent of the law. Only in the last of these is impeachment appropriate, only for willfully ignoring the law and/or abusing one’s power.
But the only way Congress can make that determination is by exercising its oversight powers. Let me offer a pedagogical parallel, however flawed it may be. I cannot determine what my students have learned and can do without assessing, giving them opportunities to demonstrate, to provide me with the information of whether reinstruction is necessary, because my teaching - the equivalent of the legislation passed by Congress - is not giving the results I expected as a result of that instruction. I may give an essay, dialog with students, even give a multiple choice quiz or test. If the results are not what I expected, I need to examine why. To plough ahead without readjusting is the equivalent of passing laws on the basis of ideology without examining the effects of those laws and then attempting to modify where necessary in order to achieve the intended goal - in my case of students learning, in our government of appropriate functioning of the government and the society.
It is insufficient for me to say "I taught them, but they failed to learn." Similarly it is insufficient for Congress to say that they passed the legislation, what happens thereafter is not their responsibility.
Impeachment is an ultimate sanction. It should not be lightly considered. As a teacher I do not give a high stakes examination without having given the student the opportunity to assess her own preparation and performance with previous preliminary assessments. The Congress must consistently exercise oversight, not because it necessarily is suspicious of the Executive (although many of the Founders might well have encourage such a skepticism towards executive power) but because the Constitutional structure of our government demands it. If impeachment is the high stakes final exam, then oversight is the quiz, the homework assignment, the unit test.
A student who refuse to do the assigned work will face an ultimate sanction - failing the course, and/or failing a major high stakes exam, whether a final I have created or an exam required by the state for promotion or graduation. As a teacher I may have to periodically remind a student of such possible consequences. A President who refuses to cooperate with necessary and appropriate oversight by the Congress needs to be reminded that he is not a free agent, that the Constitution prohibits him from acting in a tyrannical fashion, that he is answerable to the people through their elected representatives in the Congress. Oversight, the power of the purse, and impeachment are therefore not separate and unrelated powers of the Congress. They are related, and intimately connected.
If you have followed my ramblings to this point, then what I now offer will hopefully make sense. The Congress has a responsibility to rein in an Executive who is not abiding by law or Constitution, who is attempting to exercise a level of power and independence from oversight outside the structure and concept of government established by our governing document. The Congress must, as I must with recalcitrant students, begin to assert its responsibility. It must examine how things are working through oversight, as I must examine what my students can do through assessment. It may find it necessary to restrict executive action and force compliance through its funding mechanism, as I may try to enforce responsibility for learning through assignment and classroom instruction. And it may find it necessary to begin to explore whether is should apply its ultimate power to fulfill its responsibility by beginning hearings on the process of impeachment.
I always view it as something of a failure on my part if I have to have a student removed by an administrator, or if a student fails my course. It means that I as a teacher have in some way not been able to reach that student. I have failed to establish the productive relationship as described by Parker Palmer, I have not led through service as described by Greenleaf. And yet for all my frustration I do not bear all of the responsibility. I cannot MAKE a student learn, even as I must try my hardest to find a way that invites her to do so. Oversight by the Congress does not presume that the president has engaged in wrongdoing or has failed to fulfill his responsibilities any more than my giving a student a quiz is an attempt to prove that he is not doing his work or for me to establish a pretext to awarding a failing grade. Both are information, a process of feedback necessary to the fulfilling of our respective responsibilities. Congress must first seriously engage in oversight. But just as it would be wrong for me to acquiesce when a student fails to fulfill his responsibility, to allow that student to receive a passing grade even if a failing grade may lead to unhappiness - from the student, parents, athletic coaches, administrators - it is equally inappropriate for the Congress to allow refusal of the Executive to meet its Constitutional responsibilities to take care that the law be faithfully executed and to allow the Congress to fulfill its own Constitutional responsibilities.
It is past time for the Congress to have vigorous oversight, to use the power of the purse to attempt to ensure that the administration begin to act in a Constitutional fashion. And if the only way to get the Executive to act responsibly is to begin an impeachment inquiry, against which there can be no claim of executive privilege, then let the Congress take that step. I don’t like calling home on a student, or imposing preliminary sanctions, or threatening punishment - such actions potentially jeopardize the kinds of relationship I view as most productive to the learning environment. But I show a greater sense of responsibility when I do intervene like that than when I simply allow the student to crash and burn, with no notice to parents or others who might be concerned, with no action on my part to try to change the behavior. We the People are the parents, the coaches, the administrators. The Congress has a responsibility on our behalf to intervene in order that our government not crash and burn.
It is time to initiate impeachment hearings.