Please help me design a US Government course
October 31, 2017 4:09 PM   Subscribe

What do you wish you had learned in a US government course?

I'm teaching a sophomore-level US Government course at a local college. I follow the required textbook and departmental assignments, but that still leaves me with a bit of time and leeway to teach other matters. It is a required class, but I want to make it as memorable (in a good way) and as useful as possible.
What do you think I should teach these bright young minds?
What do YOU wish you had learned if you had taken a US government course?
It can be related to the Constitution, US governmental structure, American politics, policies, etc

Any and all suggestions, tips, pointers, resources, etc are very welcome.

Thank you!
posted by Neekee to Law & Government (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Find a way to work in actually meeting members of local government. Could be framed as a lobbying project or something. I don't know if that gets too far outside of "US Government" but it certainly connects to the broader framework of political structures you're presumably teaching. Humanizing the system is worthwhile.
posted by Wretch729 at 5:00 PM on October 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Things I wish I'd learned in school, related to government:
* Difference between civil and criminal law
* That copyright is based on the constitution, and the foundation is not "make sure creators get paid"
* Difference between appointed and elected positions, and what kinds of positions those are
* Parallels and differences between federal, state, and city gov't structures. (If you're teaching federal only, this would just be a side topic, something that hints at "go look for these patterns in other settings.")
* Checks and balances: Who's available to fix things if any one person, or set of people, turn out to be corrupt, biased, or just misinformed?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:03 PM on October 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

My still in college children were surprised by how poorly their friends understand the election process. Reportedly, they didn't understand registering to vote, absentee voting or how primaries function. Some seemed to think they could just show up on Election Day and didn't get that their favorite candidate wasn't on the final ballot because s/he lost in the primaries.

My just graduated child suggests how "running for office" actually works, how laws actually get made, how the electoral college works/why it exists/alternatives, and balance of powers.

The local gov't may be willing to have them sit in on a session or write a bill for official consideration.
posted by beaning at 5:12 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Having them register to vote as part of the class would be great. They can't (or shouldn't) be required to register, but having to learn what a registration form looks like and how to fill it in would be good - if they don't want to, they don't have to mail it in.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:17 PM on October 31, 2017

So I work in the open government data space, so I have my biases, but something covering government data access over time could be really interesting and even useful! Covering things like the Federal Depository Library system, FOIA, and the OSTP open access memo(which has had very significant impact on a number of agencies despite being just a memo).
posted by rockindata at 5:32 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a (mandatory) US Government course in HS which was pretty useful, but definitely not as comprehensive as I'd have liked, and focused more on the parts of government, separation of powers, checks & balances and the Constitution than the more practical concerns of how to be an informed and involved citizen. Stuff like this:
  • How voting works, including how to register to vote, and how to cast a ballot
  • How elections work, including what the difference is between primaries and general elections, how we elect US presidents, how other officials are elected, etc.
  • How to evaluate political campaigns and claims
  • How state referendums work (if you live in a state that has them)
  • A brief survey of alternative voting systems that are more fair than first-past-the-post - this'd be somewhat aspirational, but the first step in knowing how bad an existing system is is to evaluate it in comparison to other systems

posted by Aleyn at 5:33 PM on October 31, 2017

Continued discussion says:
-funding is often not well covered. Use of taxes/other revenue raising options, and how these impact governmental agencies/regulatory bodies and domestic/international policy. Have them try to produce a consensus budget
-how much "governing" occurs outside the three major branches and is done by appointees or staff. For instance, many current agencies are running even without properly appointed heads or with obstructive staff (alt-park service, etc)
-similar to rockindata's suggestion, a fuller overview of what gov't is on a practical level: the CDC, OSHA, libraries, banking, post office, the FAA, national parks, federal licenses for select professions, FAFSA, Sallie Mae, federal highways, FCC, etc
posted by beaning at 6:06 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

As a lawyer, the single most common misunderstanding I see in the non-lawyer world relates to the First Amendment of the federal Constitution. It is remarkable how few people know that the federal Constitution applies to the GOVERNMENT, not private actors, unless a statute has been enacted to make it so apply (certain very specific exceptions apply). But the thing I have to explain most frequently is that if I tell you to shut up, I'm not violating your right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment and, for example, it's not a violation of your First Amendment rights if a comment you make on a website is deleted, etc.

In addition, speech (by which I mean expression of all kinds) is not protected from government intrusion in any kind of blanket way. It is regulated on a continuum. Your students already know this. Think about truth in advertising laws! Think about libel and slander! The *most* protected speech is political speech. At the other end of the continuum you find some expression that is subject to the very rarely permitted prior restraint -- i.e., child pornography. (prior restraint meaning the suppression of expression before it is created)

Then once you've got them in agreement about all of the above, you can talk about flag burning. Maybe you're in a school where flag burning isn't controversial. How about taking a knee before a football game? Etc.

One of the things I value most highly about this country (and am most concerned about in the present environment) is the protections that are offered to political speech. The right to have a single voice heard, the right to bring about political change. Because no matter how well any of us love this country, we all can see many things that need to be changed. Things like poverty, homelessness, racism, police brutality, etc., and those are the kinds of things that can be changed through a variety of means.

One of those means is political expression -- one of the hallmarks of American freedoms. So you might disagree with the way that the message is presented, but I'll bet that if you sit down and really think it through, the very fact that we have the right to express political ideas through such means as speech and marching and protesting and, for example, burning flags, is what you love about this country.

Most people I know believe that there are things that could be changed about the United States, and the young people I know in particular believe that individuals can make a difference, sometimes through art, sometimes through music and sometimes through startling political expression. That's why given thought, ultimately most of my younger friends agree with the right to burn a flag as a means of political expression, even if they wouldn't do it themselves.

Typically, the message that is being sent in any flag burning is this: We may as well burn the flag because the virtues for which the flag stands have been so deeply undermined. It doesn't mean "down with America," it means "America needs to change" or "America needs to realize her vision." And that's a message I think we can all get behind.

Oh hey, can you tell I've had this discussion a thousand times? Asking me what to teach in a government class is like asking me the one thing I wish you would teach your child as he or she grows up. I could write a book on that one, too.
posted by janey47 at 6:11 PM on October 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

okay okay one more tidbit on a slightly different note. Jury service. It's the single most important thing you can do to change the course of your government (unless you are elected to office). Because if you refuse to convict on bad evidence, you are sending a message to the DA that says, "I CARE and I am NOT going to let you get away with this." DAs are elected. With juries that pay attention, they can't bring sloppy evidence into court or their win/lose record will go to shit and they won't be re-elected. That's a way to directly affect accountability on a powerful local level.
posted by janey47 at 6:14 PM on October 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

The federal budget and appropriations process and how it drives policy!
posted by jgirl at 6:22 PM on October 31, 2017

Please be mindful that some of your students may not be U.S. citizens, and some of them may really not want to be put in a position where they have to reveal that to the class. If you're going to do things that require direct civic engagement, make sure that they're things that all students can do, regardless of their citizenship status.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:23 PM on October 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

It is remarkable how few people know that the federal Constitution applies to the GOVERNMENT, not private actors, unless a statute has been enacted to make it so apply (certain very specific exceptions apply).

That's mostly truly, but a major exception is the 13th Amendment, which prohibits anyone from having slaves.

Another misconception about the Constitution: many people think it applies only to citizens. Nope. If you focus on the text of the Constitution, it's mostly a bunch of restrictions on government, not a list of benefits to be given out to a favored class of people. Someone who isn't a US citizen, even if they're here illegally, has the same rights under the Constitution to due process, free speech, etc., as any citizen. (They might have no legal right to be here at all, but that's statutory, not constitutional.)

As someone who works for a state court and often ends up telling people what I do, I'm shocked at how little understanding many laypeople have of the judiciary. Civics classes tend to focus on the other two branches: how a bill becomes a law, etc. So don't forget the judiciary. Obviously, that's a huge topic which people study for years in law school, but just conveying some of the absolute basics could be helpful. For instance, when I tell people I work for an appellate court, many educated people seem dumb-founded about what an appellate court is. Even if they understand once I explain that an appellate court decides appeals from trial-court decisions, they're still surprised to learn that the Supreme Court … is an appellate court! To me, that's just essential knowledge that anyone in the US should know in order to be minimally informed, like knowing that there are two houses of Congress and that Congress rather than the president writes federal laws.

Most people have exaggerated views of the legal process: either they think of it as a nightmare of frivolous lawsuits, or they picture people knowing way more about the law than is realistic and following the law way more than really happens (and so they'll mistakenly think: "This must be legal — I saw a business doing it!"). In reality, many lawsuits have important functions (compensating injured people and so on — look up the McDonald's coffee cup case for an example of how the media exaggerates the idea of lawsuits as frivolous) — and yet litigation is often a maddeningly slow, inefficient, unsatisfying process. What you might think of as the most important evidence in a case could be barred because of any number of evidentiary rules like the hearsay rule (which I'm sure you won't be able to get into the details of — law students spend a long time untangling it). People also forget that "alternative dispute resolution" (arbitration, mediation, etc.) can allow people to resolve their disputes without being burdened by all those legal procedures.

A simple fact that can radically change many people's perspectives: the vast majority of cases, civil and criminal, don't go to trial. Almost all criminal defendants plead guilty. Almost all lawsuits settle; the parties agree on the result. You can look up the exact statistics, but I'll bet it's over 90%. We picture the law as revolving around trials and courtrooms, because that's what we see on TV/movies. Yet many successful lawyers have whole careers in which they never set foot in a courtroom.

People think of America as a wildly litigious country, but I remember reading a law review article about how the percentage of claims that are actually litigated is a tiny percentage, I think in the single digits. We're not as lawsuit-crazy as people think.

And speaking of law, I strongly second the idea of explaining the difference between civil and criminal law. Many laypeople default to thinking of all "law" as being all about criminal law, which can lead them to make absurd arguments, e.g. when Obamacare was first debated, I remember seeing an article in a mainstream liberal publication (maybe Slate?) arguing that there shouldn't be a law against going without health care because that's not something you should go to jail for. *facepalm*
posted by John Cohen at 7:31 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Looking back I would wish for some details on how local government works and what parts of your students' life it affects. For instance, although I had a foggy understanding that votes took place regarding school budgets, as a kid I didn't understand how that was part of 'government'. Ditto regarding who decided when to fix roads or how recycling was going to be implemented. These may be the things your students need to have the best handle on day-to-day in adult life (and can't hurt to understand now).

Not that I don't agree with posters above who talk about understanding laws vs criminal laws or how voting works. But somehow as a student who was really interested, I found those things covered alright in social studies whereas local government doesn't come up in American History so much.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:35 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I second the above:

* Information on how to vote and how the election process works
* Information on the structure of state and local government

I feel like these are two things that really weren't covered well in high school, and that I just had to learn for myself over the years.

Another thing I think would be cool, and very useful, would be to put the US system in an international context by comparing it to other democratic systems. Americans have a real sense that our system is the "true" one--and that it can't be questioned because it's just how democracy works. But what if we had a parliament? What if we didn't have an electoral college? What if we counted votes another way? Why do we have the system we do and what does it mean for us as citizens?

A simple fact that can radically change many people's perspectives: the vast majority of cases, civil and criminal, don't go to trial. Almost all criminal defendants plead guilty. Almost all lawsuits settle; the parties agree on the result. You can look up the exact statistics, but I'll bet it's over 90%. We picture the law as revolving around trials and courtrooms, because that's what we see on TV/movies. Yet many successful lawyers have whole careers in which they never set foot in a courtroom.

Your comment reminds me of that excellent article that pointed out the parallels between our justice system and medieval justice systems under which the threat of torture was used to extract confessions--because of "remarkable parallels in origin, function, and even in specific points of doctrine."

This is it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:36 PM on October 31, 2017

It would be interesting/useful to have them work through a local government unit's budget, or to have a local government unit's budget guy come in and talk to them. (When I was on the school board we seriously spent 40% of our budget discussions trying to get people to understand that education (paying teachers) and operations (paying for buildings) were levied separately and it was illegal to mix the levies and so I get that you're grumpy that there are new whiteboards while teachers aren't getting a raise but it's a state level issue that we can't fix.) If your college is public, they could work through the college budget!

I always felt like the #1 thing that people didn't understand was that there are REASONS things are set up in complicated -- sometimes very suboptimal -- ways, and that if you want to come in and fix things, you need to understand the reasons first. (In the case of education vs. operations, it was because some districts tried to spend all their money on teachers and neglected basic fire safety so people DIED, and some districts went the other way with fancy-ass buildings and couldn't afford teachers, so the state decided to require you to levy both and forbid you from mixing the levies, so you had to pay for fire safety AND teachers.) Even with very complicated issues, like health care -- Obamacare respected the "path dependency" of the current system and built on what exists, instead of insisting on a slate-wiped-clean, which is always difficult in a country the size of the US. You might have them look at some different Medicare-for-All proposals and talk about the difference between immediate creation of a total system vs. people buying in over time, and the pluses and minuses of those prospects.

On a more frivolous note, I taught a philosophy class that had a political philosophy unit, and one of the most worthwhile exercises we did all semester was, after learning about the US Constitution and its philosophical antecedents, break down into groups and create a constitution for a new society. Sometimes I had them do it in two steps, usually doing the first step individually as homework -- they were on a generation ship heading to a new planet, first make a constitution governing the generation ship; then make a constitution governing the new planet. (They were allowed to assume the parameters of their ship and their new planet, how many people, what the conditions were, etc.) I taught in a fairly conservative/libertarian area, so it was always amusing to me -- and I took great joy in pointing out -- how my students tended towards ridiculous fascism when they were the boss of a society. They also tended towards communism with their new settlement. (They also have a bizarre fixation on regulating other people's sex lives in the constitution!) They'd work in groups for an hour or so and come up with the outline of a basic constitution. (Maybe 1 in 20 times, a group would use the US constitution as a jumping off point but really ALMOST NEVER because they were all super-fascists when they were in charge!) As a final exercise I had them vote on which group's constitution to accept, and we discussed whether they'd actually want to live under ANY of the constitutions. It helps for that exercise if you're familiar with some of the charters of colonies founded in the early pre-US colonies, and some of the law codes of the colonies, which tended towards the harshness that students often prefer (like the death penalty for every. single. crime, no matter how trivial), and if you can talk about some of the theory behind those harsh codes (there were no jails and colonies couldn't afford to keep someone who wasn't producing food anyway, or who couldn't be trusted not to steal food ... but the death penalty was often ignored if the colony felt the offender wasn't a risk).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:42 PM on October 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

If I were teaching this class I'd mine the WaPo podcast Constitutional heavily for material, or even assign episodes as homework. It's doing a great job of breaking down the amendments to the Constitution and what each one really means for people who live in the United States.
posted by chaiminda at 3:00 AM on November 1, 2017

A field trip to a city council meeting, state legislature, or any other place where you can see government in action.
posted by bunderful at 5:58 AM on November 1, 2017

I will second those who posted discussion points on how the tax system works to give us paved roads, fire protection, etc, and that the government is US, not THEM. I was just talking to someone about the need for education around our government, so I am really glad to see you are doing this.
posted by Vermillion at 6:24 AM on November 1, 2017

What do you wish you had learned in a US government course?

More information about social inequality and barriers to civic engagement.

Ways that minors can participate in civic engagement--I spent a lot of my civics and government courses fuming and feeling powerless that I was too young to vote.

How to stay informed about ongoing legislative developments at the local, state, and federal levels.

It also took me way too long to resist the siren call of "the resurgence of reactionary conservatism in the US is an expression of economic anxiety in rural states where traditional industry is declining". It's hard to say exactly what would have helped me learn this earlier - maybe something about finance in politics, and something about voter demographics?
posted by capricorn at 6:43 AM on November 1, 2017

Ah, I just saw that this is a college course, not a high school course. My bad! (Unless you do have minors in your course, which is possible if your college is doing the whole dual enrollment dance.)
posted by capricorn at 6:44 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Rather than "what I wished I had learned" I'll tell you about my favorite and most memorable high school government teacher. Although I can't remember his name after forty years, I remember how interesting he made this potentially dry subject.

He was a former Secret Service (or something similar) agent during the Nixon years. (He would never say exactly what agency he worked for, but he described enough of his job and access that it had to be something like that.) But that wasn't what was most interesting. He had a way of teaching how the political process was supposed to work, say the journey of a bill into law. Then he would explain how it really worked, with back room deals, mutual favors, and adding unrelated things to the bills until they became unrecognizable once passed into law.

The main thing he was good at was humanizing government, but not in a way that was cynical or dismissive. It was the first time I realized that politicians and other government officials were just people. Some of them terrible, some of them wonderful, just like people you meet in everyday life. They are certainly not better than the rest of us, they are just supposed to represent us.

Needless to say, things have changed a lot since the 70s, but that basic truth still resonates.

Another thing he was good at was story-telling. He would explain how certain parts of our governmental process came to be by telling the story behind it, which always had some sort of human drama. And, cleverly, he was good a timing his stories so he couldn't finish before class ended, leaving us looking forward to coming back the next day.
posted by The Deej at 6:50 AM on November 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Teach them about one of the most fundamental inequalities of our country: how we allocate funds for public schools.

Echoing teaching about local politics and the primary process. Have them investigate how the process of getting on a ballot works, what % of people vote in local elections where you live, and what it takes for a candidate to win a race in terms of $$, numbers of voters reached in person, etc. If there are state or municipal issues on an upcoming ballot, have them research and discuss them.

Teach them some of the Supreme Court cases that have helped define their rights, and don’t shy away from the fact that Mapp v. Ohio involved (the world’s tamest) pornography. I actually remember cases from 10th grade government because my government teacher didn’t try to whitewash or water down the case law as much.
posted by deludingmyself at 6:51 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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