08/06/2013 09:24 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

The World's Longest Running Seminar on Free Government

I recently returned from vacationing for a few weeks in rural Wisconsin. There was a time not so long ago when this retreat would have cut me off from what was going on the wider world. But as our communication devices become ever more interconnected, we can access news from the wider world wherever we are, whenever we wish.

I was glad to have that instantaneous access when I wanted to check on the end-of-term decisions being announced by the Supreme Court. All I had to do was type into my web browser, and I instantly joined thousands of people receiving immediate updates from reporters in the courtroom. We were all connected--"in real-time" -- peering into the workings of one branch of our government.

We have gotten very good at being informed in this way. When we want up-to-the-minute intelligence, breaking headlines, and quick summaries of what is happening right now, we have an apparently inexhaustible fund of news and news-like reporting to satisfy that desire.

But we are not nearly so good at being informed in other ways. We seem to be losing access to ways of being informed that require lengthy consideration, careful study, and prolonged conversation with others. Our desire for knowing what is happening is overwhelming our desire for knowing why it is happening.

At the very same time the Court was delivering its decisions, two members of my faculty were co-leading a weeklong series of seminars on selections from The Federalist and the writings of the Anti-Federalists. These sessions are not intended for academics and their students. They are what we call "community seminars," that is, group conversations open to anyone who is willing to commit to serious and enquiring discussion. Having led such discussions myself, I could be fairly certain that the just-announced rulings would be raised in those conversations. They would be raised, however, not so much for their own sake, but rather as examples to help the participants grapple with the deeper why questions.

Why does the Supreme Court get to decide on the meaning of all our laws? It did not have to be that way, and the Anti-Federalists made it abundantly clear that they were alarmed by the proposition of a single superior court at the Federal level. Some of them worried that it would quickly become an oligarchy, because its pronouncements could not be checked effectively. They lost the argument, but were they right after all? There are more than a few Americans who believe that the Supreme Court is just the sort of oligarchy that the Anti-Federalists feared.

And why did the Framers choose separation of powers as the principle of their government? The Anti-Federalists, on the whole, did not believe that the checks and balances in the Constitution were sufficient to protect the people against collusion by the three branches. But there are those today who seem to think that the branches are too antagonistic rather than too conspiratorial. Did the Framers create a government inclined to gridlock?

The two faculty members who led these seminars report the general feeling of their group to be that the Framers probably preferred gridlock to armed revolt, and that they designed the Constitution to force us to resolve our disagreements through rational debate rather than armed conflict. And granting the Supreme Court final say about the meaning of the Constitution almost guarantees that serious disputes will be resolved slowly and deliberately, in a context where reasoned argument has a chance to compete with impassioned rhetoric.

There are few places in the world where one can have free conversation like this about one's government, but the Framers designed our nation to be such a place. Since 1937, in accord with the Framers' design, St. John's College has been offering the world's longest-running seminar on free government, open to anyone who is willing to engage in deliberate cooperative thought and civil conversation. This sort of discussion is the heart of America's genius, and the best protection for its future. It is our civic duty to promote and participate in this uniquely American conversation, and to bequeath the continuing inquiry to the next generation. We think the Framers would agree.

Christopher Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, is an outspoken champion of the liberal arts. St. John's College, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, is the third oldest in the nation. It is known for its distinctive curriculum in which students read and discuss great works of western civilization, including our nation's founding documents.