As 2017 begins, it looks as if the ship of state will tack in a totally different direction. An historic moment that’s also a potent opportunity for American history and other humanities teachers to capitalize on the teachable moments offered by the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump.
Theoretical issues come alive
It was always challenging to teach political abstractions. Some students find it easy to concretize a political theory, but others struggle. Ask anyone who has ever tried to teach the Great Compromise of 1787 or the functioning of “checks and balances.” You can see frowns on kids’ faces as they feign comprehension.
Abstractions must be shown in practical application, and the best way to teach something is by showing examples of it.
The transition of power from one political party to another, one governing philosophy to another, puts such abstractions into stark relief. The core questions of our society–liberty and equality, powers of government and freedoms of individuals, unity and dissent, wealth and taxes, crime and punishment, religion in politics–are playing out fiercely.
Let’s use the moment. Somewhere within this bounty is an intersection with your curriculum that leads to significant learning for every student. Imagine teaching environmental science right now as Trump reshapes the EPA.
What kind of political leaders does America want?
Trump’s similarities to Andrew Jackson in 1824 and 1828 are clear. He has portrayed himself as a hard-charging, aggressive, “take-no-prisoners” nationalist. The comparison provokes learning on complex issues.
Students will soon be voting citizens. By analyzing the rise of Trump, they’ll define their own leadership priorities. Which qualities do they want in their own candidates: Business experience? Diplomatic skill? Formal education or “street smarts”? Ask, is an Ivy League education a plus or a minus for America’s leaders today?
In looking at Trump, history from almost two centuries ago comes to life in very real ways.
But the teachable moment doesn’t stop there. In this change election, almost every issue is now up for grabs.
Just for starters consider these teachable moments
- The elastic clause of the Constitution: Can and should Trump eliminate the FDA?
- Lame ducks and midnight appointments: Can Obama impose–and Trump rescind– last minute environmental regulations on drilling? Here is the moment for Marbury vs. Madison.
- The Electoral College: Should we amend the Constitution to create a direct national vote?
- Presidential pardons: Should President Obama pardon Edward Snowden? Was Snowden a traitor or a whistleblower?
- War powers: Can Obama close Guantanamo?
- The system of checks and balances: Will Trump’s cabinet and court picks be rejected by the Senate?
- States’ rights and federalism: Should the Trump administration allow more states to legalize marijuana, or fight them?
- The New Deal and Great Society: Should Congress privatize Social Security? Should it “voucherize” Medicare?
- Public education: Should the Trump administration seek to give people vouchers redeemable for private and religious school tuition?
- Health care and the general welfare: Should Congress repeal the Affordable Care Act?
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Close encounters with the Constitution
A few things to try as Obama leaves office or during Trump’s first 100 days:
- Watch some Senators interrogate a candidate nominee or Trump’s Supreme Court pick. Ask students to predict the Senate’s vote. Write a reaction paper analyzing the issues being debated.
- Debate a pardon for Edward Snowden.
- Watch President Trump’s inaugural address. Students should react to the issues raised. Compare the text to previous inaugurals.
- Debate the privatization of Social Security as proposed by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
- Debate social media, fake news and the First Amendment. Do social media platforms need new rules to suppress “fake news”?
- Hold a pro-con debate on mass surveillance of digital communication. Is it a valid response to global international terrorism?
Young students are eager to make sense of the world. They want very much to figure out how they fit into the economies and social systems of the 21st century. Despite having more raw information than ever before, they still need voices of wisdom and experience. Trump’s inaugural is a watershed moment and we need a good history curriculum as never before.
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