The emperor is coming to town

President Obama is visiting UNC’s campus today to deliver a policy speech about interest rates on student loans (and to tape an episode of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon).

Roads are closing; traffic will be snarled; excitement is in the air. Here’s a description of how the visit will change driving conditions, from the Charlotte Observer:

This disruption of people’s commutes reminded me of something I read when I taught 9th grade world history students about ancient Rome. I had students read an excerpt from Cullen Murphy’s book Are We Rome?

Through the magic of Google Books, I can share with you a few pages from that book. This is unusual for a blog, I know, but bear with me and read the next few panels.

On the first panel, I’ve underlined in red a few words I’d expect that middle school students would need to look up. I’m modeling how, whenever we read at Triangle Learning Community middle school, we will see new words and phrases as opportunities to build our vocabulary.

These pages are from early in the book, where Mr. Murphy is comparing the Roman emperor’s “comitatus,” or entourage, to the group of people the president today carries around with him (or her).

Now, when President Obama comes to UNC this afternoon, he will already be pretty secure within the borders of the United States, so he won’t need to bring as many provisions or reinforcements as President Bush brought with him to Ireland in 2007, when Mr. Murphy wrote his book (though it’s interesting to think that President Obama travels with a supply of blood that matches his type).

President Obama will fly in on Air Force One — did students know before that the eagle on the plane is a symbol that traces back to Roman days?

and will arrive at RDU a little after noon so that he can get to UNC for his 1 p.m. speech. President Obama has made this trip before — back in September of 2011, he gave a speech at NCSU about the Jobs Act.

Here’s what Air Force One looks like from that previous visit:

So if we were to discuss this visit with students, there are a bunch of issues to discuss — first, on a practical level, why is President Obama making so many visits to North Carolina?

Well, there’s a presidential election in November of 2012, and North Carolina is one of the “battleground” states.

Here’s a map of “battleground states” in the 2012 election from USA Today:

How did I find that map?  Well, I typed in this image search (searching for information to put news articles in context is something we’ll practice just about every morning at Triangle Learning Community).

So he’s giving several speeches in North Carolina because it’s a battleground state that he wants to win in November.

According to the Raleigh News and Observer, President Obama is also visiting other battleground states — Colorado and Iowa:

And when we look again at the battleground map, we can see why he’s making those particular visits:

So now, we’d see what questions students have about this presidential visit (TLC will be constructivist and student-centered, so student questions and interest will direct the conversation), and then we’d explore — assuming students wanted to explore the topic — whether Cullen Murphy’s comparison is an apt one. Is President Obama like a Roman emperor the way he travels around with his entourage?

And if we are like Rome (and Murphy makes a good case that we are), and if Rome fell, what are some lessons we might take from the way Rome fell to guide us and perhaps prevent the U.S. from falling as well.

And what does it mean for a nation to “fall”?  What nations are on the “rise” today? Perhaps China and India? What have we learned about those nations?

We’d take the president’s visit and use it as a springboard to ask bigger questions about the world in which we live.

And because TLC will be so small, if we were in session, we’d likely interrupt our normal day to visit UNC’s campus to see what a presidential visit feels like — after all, it’s not every day that the most powerful person on the planet comes to visit.

It’s worth slowing down to think about what his visit means and whether the US is still a republic (after all, that’s what the Pledge of Allegiance says, right? — “…and to the republic for which it stands, one nation…”) or whether we’re more like an empire, with troops stationed all over the world.

That seems like a question worth thinking about.

Here’s a piece titled Are We Rome? from Salon in 2007 (when Mr. Murphy’s book came out) that might be a good starting place for interested students:

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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