Bush and Civics
December 12, 2006 10:05 AM   Subscribe

How do civics teachers handle their jobs?

I'm a bit curious how high school (or otherwise) civics teachers have been teaching their classes since the Bush administration came to power. How do you deal with explaining checks and balances, fourth amendment rights, freedom of/from religion, the constitution, etc. given the administration's somewhat divergent interpretation of these ideas? Has your teaching style changed over the last few years? Do you find your students are saavy about what's going on in American politics today? Do they make your job difficult? Or does the wealth of controversy make your job more interesting and stimulate engaging conversations in your classes? Do people even take civics classes any more?
posted by SBMike to Education (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been wondering this myself, given not only the recent political climate, but also the rise of the whole "Screw your neighbor" ethos.
You're assuming schools even have traditional Civics classes anymore. I know my kid's (large, suburban/rural) high school doesn't offer it. American history (which usually only manages to cover the Revolution through WWII) is about as close as they come. And they definitely don't delve into serious politics.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:42 AM on December 12, 2006

In my AmGov class (senior year, finished it about this time last year) we went over the constitution directly, ignoring the present day situation, then had a handful of short debates over whether the current state of the US complied with the constitution. My school/class was almost wholly liberal though, with a liberal teacher, so people were pretty blatent about attacking the current state of things.
posted by devilsbrigade at 10:56 AM on December 12, 2006

I teach introductory American politics classes at the college level, which is different, but mostly it's not an issue.

An awful lot of the stuff people get upset about, like the use of signing statements, is either piddly flash in the pan stuff that nobody will remember in 20 years so there's no point including it, or is so recent that we really have no clue what the effects are, so again there's little point in including it. In both cases, there's little point including it because of the wealth of other material that could be covered instead.

How do you deal with explaining checks and balances

I explain the concepts with reference to Federalists 10 and 51. A sentence on the order of "Of course, this only rears its ugly head when President and Congress disagree strongly" deals with the 109th Congress.

fourth amendment rights

I explain the landmark cases and concepts in them. There haven't been any landmark cases since Bush came into office, not on the level of Mapp or Leon, so current events mostly don't come up. Inevitably, I get questions like "So can a cop do X?," to which my answer is that you'd have to ask a lawyer.

freedom of/from religion,

I explain the underlying concepts and landmark or illustrative cases. There haven't been any since Bush came to office, so current events again aren't relevant except to note that aid to or through churches for social purposes falls under the general rubric of the Lemon test.

Has your teaching style changed over the last few years?

Not in any way related to Bush. Yes, insofar as I'm now dealing with more and worse students than when I was adjuncting as a grad student.

Do you find your students are saavy about what's going on in American politics today?

Not even close, but then I teach at a directional/regional state school that's at best little better than a diploma mill.

Or does the wealth of controversy make your job more interesting and stimulate engaging conversations in your classes?

My classes have 150+ students, so there is essentially no conversation.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:51 AM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do people even take civics classes any more?

I think that's the question to ask, and my answer is "no". I don't believe that the majority of U.S. high school graduates have ever taken a class which teaches civics. I think Thorzdad is exactly correct that the closest class is American history, which covers politics like this:

"The Federalists favored ratification of the Constitution while the anti-Federalists opposed it."

Nat Hentoff has written on the lack of civics classes.
posted by jellicle at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2006

I taught intro journalism at the college level, which carries with it some similar pitfalls.

I'm not a hugely experienced teacher (I've only got three semesters of actual experience), but one answer was to provide the students with as much legal info and journalistic ethics as I could, and let them come to their own conclusion on a given issue. I let the students drive the discussions as much as I could, and we never really hurt for topics to discuss.

In one lecture on the concept of journalism as the "first draft of history," I read to them an obviously ludicrous news item from a local paper during the Spanish-American war, in which a major nautical battle took place on a local river (the school was in central PA; the river was the Juniata). The article, which was patently false in every way, was written partially as a local morale-booster, partially as a way to compete with Hearst-owned papers, which at the time were fanning the flames of war even harder. When I asked them if they thought anything like this could happen today, they all said no; in response, I brought up Armstrong Williams and the White House video news releases.

As a caveat, I also disclosed as much of my feelings on a certain issue as I could without derailing the discussion, in order to provide a better context for my lecturing. I certainly didn't rant or proseletyze, but nor did I hide how I felt. High school teachers, though, may not have this luxury, partly because they're essentially government employees, and partly because college students are generally better at sythesizing what I tell them with what they're learning elsewhere.
posted by hifiparasol at 1:04 PM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

That was a good article jellicle.

I guess civics just goes on my list of topics which I can't understand why they are not being taught in public schools to every student. Also included:

-logic (formal or otherwise)
-basic statistics and public policy
-money management
-real Phys Ed.
-advertising and marketing
posted by SBMike at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2006

I should note that we didn't do this stuff every day; much of the class was mechanical, and we'd have "ethics issues Fridays" which the students enjoyed because there was more discussion and less lecturing.
posted by hifiparasol at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2006

Do people even take civics classes any more?

On googling, 29 states require their HS students to take civics or govt courses.

Of course, that doesn't mean they learn a damn thing. Social studies in general have long been a dumping ground for coaches who have to "teach" to keep their jobs, or as a means of paying coaches extra.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:12 PM on December 12, 2006

I graduated highschool shortly before Bush came into office, so I know my experience isn't totally what you're looking for, but I wanted to throw in as someone who (fairly) recently has taken a highschool civics class, required for all 10th graders in my district.

My class was set up so that within each section (loosely divided by the three branches of government) there was an initial section that covered the history and mechanics set up by the constitution (and federalist papers and court cases, to a lesser extent), and then a more applied section where we got to debate one another and discuss current events. My little brother had the same teachers I did, 6 years later during the Bush presidency, and the set-up was largely the same. In this case, I imagine it only increased the level of debate.

However, I remeber that only around 15% of the class followed current events enough and were politically active enough to actually care about the topics we were debating (with probably a 50/50 mix of liberals and conservatives), so a large part of the class probably didn't get much out of it.
posted by twoporedomain at 2:29 PM on December 12, 2006

High schoolers are about the same as adults when it comes to their knowledge of politics. I know kids who read the whole newspaper every day, and are extremely aware of current events. On the other hand, a girl in my history class the other day didn't recognize the name Abraham Lincoln.
We talk about current events in history, and we also talked about current events when I took government, but the structure of both courses didn't change as a result of Bush. Just because he breaks rules doesn't mean they don't exist.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 3:07 PM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I graduated from high school in 2005, and took AP Government in the fall of my senior year, during the height of the '04 election. I'm from a liberal, intellectual hometown, so the quality of the students was high and the potential for a great class was there. And, our teacher was amazing, so the potential was realized. We didn't really touch on contemporary politics in class, though: we spent a lot of time reading the important Federalist Papers (10, 51, 84) and influential court cases (Marbury v. Madison, Plessy, Brown v. Board of Ed, Griswold v. Connecticut, Heart of Atlanta Motel, Mapp, a bunch of others), and we studied the Constitution in a lot of detail, especially the interstate commerce clause. There was some discussion of how the federal goverment had, since the New Deal, increasingly taken power from the states, but recently (starting with Reagan) that power had been devolving to the states (there was a court case involving guns and public schools, the name of which escapes me), but that was about as far as we got into recent trends, at least in class.

Outside of class, we had plenty of time to talk with our teacher about contemporary politics, and myself and a couple friends often ate lunch with him and discussed the present state of the country, which sometimes connected back to class, sometimes not. One really cool thing our teacher did was have 'debate parties.' Since he lived only a few blocks from school, for each of the three presidential debates, he sent an open invitation to anyone in the class to come to his backyard, where he screened the debates on a big projection screen attached to his garage, and then led a discussion about them later. These were fun; since our community is about 80% Democrats, loud cheers went up whenever Kerry made a good point.

So to sum up, our class didn't really cover contemporary events directly, but it still functioned at a high, intellectual, effective level, and plenty of extracurricular discussion of contemporary politics occurred centered around the class. But then again, where I'm from is hardly representative of most of America today.
posted by notswedish at 3:19 PM on December 12, 2006

For the most part? They don't.

That might interfere with football.
posted by dagnyscott at 5:03 PM on December 12, 2006

I'm taking a US History class right now that earns me Government credit (it's a semester course for seniors at my school, but IB means I take it credit by exam as a junior). We definitely discuss current events in my class, sometimes as they occur. We have a lot of people from outside the country (Russia, Mexico, China, India, France, etc.) so the discussion can get very interesting, especially because my teacher is a (very sweet) older Texan lady who tends to couch things in Cold War terms (she actually still believes most of the world likes America, for instance). When we were learning about the constitution and so forth we had some interesting discussions about habeas corpus, because this was when the Supreme Court was deciding whether Gitmo prisoners had legal rights. A lot of people don't know what we're talking about though, so the discussion tends to focus on a few knowledgeable people who actually care.
posted by MadamM at 5:23 PM on December 12, 2006

Why would they teach any differntly than during Clinton or Reagan or Nixon? They all had some touchy constitutional issues during their administrations.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:42 PM on December 12, 2006

I'm a high school senior, and I took US History 1AP two years ago, during the heat of the '04 elections. On preview, hifiparasol, I went through a very similar Journalism 1A class, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. And I second martinX's bellbottoms's reply.

We like teachers with some authority. Make sure I can speak my mind without hearing snide remarks from my classmates. In my history class this year, people keep giggling and making jokes at the expense of a few students, and I just have trouble taking the class seriously anymore.

Also, you might want to save the discussions for the end of class because they tend to suck up time.

In addition to casual conversations, we had some formal debates, wherein we'd prepare lots of research and argue a side. We would also have "roleplays," where there were no clear sides, and the objective was to reach a compromise while preserving our personal interests. These were all a lot of fun, and each student was expected to speak twice (or once, if he's really good).

I think discussion is an essential part of any civics class, even if it's only once or twice weekly. Your students are very lucky to have you as a teacher!
posted by theiconoclast31 at 7:48 PM on December 12, 2006

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