Monthly Archives: April 2016

Session Six Civilization: The Big Questions of Politics and Economics


Our overarching question for the year is: Must a hero conquer fear to find true love?

This session, the more specific question we are exploring in the Politics and Economics Quest:  Must a hero conquer fear of the public square, to find a true love of country, community and self?

Given this goal, our Socratic discussions in Civilization have been centered around the big questions in politics and economics:

  • Is government’s primary role to protect our individual rights or create a more prosperous and just world?
  • Should we fear anarchy or tyranny more?
  • Who should decide how society should be structured: elites or a strong man; the mob and pure democracy or free individuals making individual choices?
  • Was Hamilton right about centralizing power or Jefferson right about dispersing it? Who would Madison have agreed with more?
  • What happens when governments and markets fail?

Twice each week, Eagles do an hour or more of original research, looking both historical battles and current day dilemmas, followed by a twenty minute Socratic discussion led by an Eagle.

All of this with the underlying question: How will you change the world through political or economic action, without having your morals and principles corrupted by the process?

What is your Political Kryptonite?


One of the key themes of the Politics and Economics Quest is the issue of personal corruption.

As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.

As our Eagles struggle for their party to win the Politics and Economics Quest, they will have to measure principle against compromise, and obeying party leaders versus serving constituents versus staying true to their conscience.  Just like in the real world, we expect them to be tempted.

What will be the greatest temptation:

  • Unbridled competition;
  • Money;
  • Power;
  • Fame;
  • Something else?

Perhaps the most important task for anyone entering the public arena is to discover his or her political kryptonite – the substance for which you might unwittingly trade your freedom and soul.

So what is your political kryptonite?

Finding a Cause that Matters to You


How do you discover, explore and sharpen (or change) your core political beliefs, those bedrock principles that form your actions in the public square?  Is it best to dive into ancient texts or current day battles?  To wax philosophical or enter into the fray?

At Acton Academy, we decided to start with conflicts in the studio that matter to Eagles.

For example:

  • Should everyone be taxed an equal number of Eagle Bucks for supplies or should those who earn more Eagle Bucks pay a larger share?
  • Should freedom of speech, press and association be unlimited for Acton Eagles or restricted for the good of the community?
  • Should all possibility of embarrassment be stricken from Acton or do serious consequences deter future bad acts?

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we started with nineteen controversial decisions that could impact the  our community.   Each Eagle then took a test to identify his or her core political principles, and selected five top Acton Personal Political Causes.

We then matched up each Eagles with one side or another of a Personal Cause, while also asking Eagles to identify a real world controversy where the same principle applied. For example: environmental protection, gun rights or freedom of religion.

Eagles will research and write white papers and editorials on the real world issues, and use real world facts and examples to argue for changes in Acton governance during the Exhibition.

The common link between the Acton studio issue and the real world? A firmly held political principle.  In a way, the Politics and Economic Quest is a test of whether each Eagle will stand by his or her deepest principles, or sell out for power, fame, popularity or money.

Our Eagles are not normal


Two recent experiments suggest our Elementary, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles are several standard deviations away from normal.

In the Politics and Economics Quest, we have been playing a series of role plays and hands-on games to raise important political and economic questions:

  • The Lord of the Flies Game – What happens when anarchy rules?
  • The Power Game and Telephone – How do hierarchy, status and rigid rules make it difficult to organize work and treat others with respect?
  • The Trading and Self Organizing Games: How can free choice and prices add value in daily life and make it easier to accomplish common goals? and finally
  • The Tragedy of the Commons; Free Rider and Bribery Games: Will markets and society fail if our citizens lack character?

The Free Rider game is a classic economic experiment.  In thousands of trials, around the world, humans fail to contribute their fair share to a group activity – and especially so when guaranteed anonymity.

Typically, 50 percent of a population will free ride when first offered a chance, and 100 percent of participants will free ride once they understand that others will defect.

We expected similar results from the Middle School and Launchpad Eagles, who are as rational as any group.  To our surprise, the free riding didn’t occur.  Only one Eagle out of fifteen failed to put in his is her fair share – a 93.3% responsibility rate versus 50% for the general population.

On the same day, Elementary Eagles took the famous Marshmallow Test to measure their ability to defer gratification, a skill with a strong correlation to future success.

In thousands of experiments, 30 percent or fewer of elementary aged students will postpone eating a marshmallow immediately in return for receiving two marshmallows later.  For our Elementary Eagles, forty out of forty young heroes chose to wait for the two marshmallow reward.

Our learning philosophy at Acton Academy is simple:

  • The right questions and analysis lead to the right decisions;
  • The right decisions become the right habits;
  • The right habits shape character; and
  • Character determines destiny.

Our Eagles are far from normal, in a very good way.


Politics, Religion and Economics in the Public Square


Becoming a citizen who changes the world through political or economic action requires a laser sharp understanding of fundamental principles and definitions – and perhaps an instinctive refusal to allow others to define those principles and definitions for us.

“Politics” comes from the Greek word politikos, from politēs ‘citizen’ and polis ‘city.’  Politics isn’t limited to corrupt acts plotted in smoke filled rooms, but more fundamentally is how people organize to change society.

“Religion” comes from a Latin derivation of ligare to ‘bind’ and ‘connect’ and defines the beliefs and practices we value, whether they include supernatural forces or not.

For most of history, political and religious forces were intertwined  – the King and the Pope – decided how society was organized and the common man was bound, starting with power emanating from the top.

The world shifted when in the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx separated religion from politics and Adam Smith championed the invisible hand – free choice guided by market prices. “Economics” emerged as an alternative to hierarchical power as a way to organize society, even as values were driven from the public square.

Politics, religion and economics have been battling ever since, in America within a competitive political framework constructed by our Founding Fathers, who believed a free and virtuous citizenry through self-governance could build a nation based on ideas and principles.

Why do these definitions matter?  Because in order to change the world, Eagles need to understand the real battles aren’t necessarily about elections or laws, but about principles and ideas.   Debates about how society should be organized – either by the firm hand of government or the invisible hand of economics –then become clearer.

We see that values matter too, and that religion — understood as the commitments and beliefs that unite us as a nation, rather than superstitions that divide us into warring tribes – must be a part of the debate, and debated with judgment and tolerance.

On such definitions do the commitments and covenants of flawed human beings rest, as well as the future of the richest, most powerful and fairest nation on earth.

That’s why it’s important for the young women and men who will lead it to start their trials now.

The Politics and Economics Quest

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Five weeks from now, Middle School and Launchpad Eagles will gather for a political convention to deliver stump speeches, debate legislation and argue in front of a panel of Supreme Court Justices.

Battles will take place on the federal, state and local level as Eagles seek to make their communities a better place to live, work and raise healthy families.  Not only will Eagles master tools like focus groups, polls and canvassing, they’ll also have to convince Elementary Eagles to register and vote, even if like most Americans they are easily distracted and too busy to engage.

Where will the energy come from for all of this?  First, from a series of games and role plays – like the Lord of the Flies contest – that demonstrate the natural consequences of economic and political choices.  And finally, from organizing political parties, for the party with the most wins in Executive branch elections; passing laws and winning court cases wins the P&E Quest.

Let the games begin!

Narrowly Defined Challenges or Open Ended Problems?


Do Eagles learn more from narrowly defined challenges or open ended problems?

Narrowly defined challenges like: “What is the square root of 2?” or “Write a balanced chemical equation for the reaction of acetic acid and water” are simple to design and evaluate.  A series of narrowly defined challenges give Eagles – and especially Type A Eagles and parents — a sense of accomplishment as SMART goals and Weekly Points accumulate like clockwork.  And, of course, there is value in mastering a process.

Open ended problems, like: “How can you mix these elements to create a rocket fuel that will propel your vehicle over four meters in height, with the lowest cost per meter gained?” are much more challenging.   There’s no prescribed process.  Well-worn theories work better in textbooks than in the real world. Team members clash given the time pressure and ambiguity.  Plus, it’s harder to measure progress; and not everyone learns at the same pace.

Avoiding open ended problems means not having to convince Eagles they understand  complex subjects far more deeply than traditional students, who often are capable of little more than  regurgitating answers for an AP test.

Narrow challenges are better than open ended problems in every way except one:  No one in the real world will you pay you to solve narrowly defined challenges more easily executed by an algorithm. 

If our Eagles want to change the world, they will need to solve messy, open ended problems requiring complex collaboration. So brace yourself for more narrowly defined challenges and open ended questions, as we equip Eagles to embrace the beauty and frustration of open ended creativity.


Prototyping Happiness, Satisfaction and Fulfillment

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After weeks of devouring Positive Psychology Deep Books, TED talks and experiments, Launchpadders on Friday pitched Middle School Eagles to try one of two prototype programs designed as part of the Positive Psychology Quest.

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The first program — Connecting with your Superhero — offers 30 days of activities and challenges to strengthen and deepen relationships delivered by an I-Phone-like App.   As they advance, middle schoolers earn points to construct avatars that reveal the superhero inside.

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The second program — Hues of Happiness — offers  Positive Psychology activities, QR codes, videos, nightly journalling and hidden images revealed through an adult coloring book to help rescue middle choolers from  adolescent funks and bad moods.

Can science help young people find more happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment?  Thanks to the hard work of the two Launchpad teams, we now have twenty five middle schoolers committed to find out during Session Six.

The Chemistry and Rocket Quest Grand Finale

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On Friday, over twenty five Rocket Heroes from Wernher von Braun to Neil Armstrong to Elon Musk welcomed visitors to our Chemistry and Rocket Quest Exhibition.

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We started with readings from the Eagles’ Flash Science Fiction stories and continued with a judging of space station, launchpad and rocket designs for the multi-billion dollar Space X contract, with points awarded for virtual drawings, electrical efficiency, scientific documentation and other categories.

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Then it was time for the big event  – the final rocket launches, each featuring a top secret custom-engineered rocket fuel formula, designed to propel rockets as high as possible, with exactly a ten second safety delay and a completely neutral pH effluent.


Just as in the real world, some launches were flawless; others were less successful.  The crowd pulsed with ohhs and ahhs that would have made NASA proud, as some rockets soared over twenty five hundred feet (OK, in reality, twenty five feet.)

Most importantly, in the final Socratic discussion we listened to lessons learned from our open ended exploration of chemical reactions, from measuring PH to building better batteries to deep insights about the usefulness of scientific theory; carefully measured trial and error and random trial and error.  Most importantly, we heard of hard earned lessons about serving on and leading a team.

Next session – something even harder than rocket science.  How do you build better forms of government?