i have thought long and hard about how i should approach this ear’s classes, and what I might teach the following year should I come back for a 4th year (at which time I would be 76). As a result of having again taught American History Honors to juniors last year as I will this year, I want to do an elective on the most critical decade of the past century plus, the 1960s. I have permission to propose the class aand provide and outline fora semester course. Think of all the issues — Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights (Stonewall), urban riots, the 1960 election with the first two candidates born in the 20th Century, the Goldwater campaign, the rise of the modern conservative movement, the start of the environmental movement, international student protests — Columbia U, Cornell, Paris, etc. — protests in Mexico City before the Olympics and protests at that Olympics, assassinations — 2 Kennedies, King, Medgar Evers , etc — changes in music — development of Motown, English Invasion, west coast influences like Jefferson Airplane, surfing music — … and so much more, including of course the impact of Vietnam. I would want to do topically, not chronologically, with a lot of student researched and presented projects, meanwhile building a huge timeline with multiple strands to they can see how it developed and reflect on its impact. And of course since I am now 75 this is my lived experience.
But that is in the future. This year Ihave one section of Honors US History, and 4 sections of seniors taking Government — all 3 Honors sections and one regular Government and Law (no AP, for which I am actually grateful). I have also been thinking long and hard about both History and Government.
For History, I want to start with two questions. The first is what is history — how do we know it, what does it mean? The second is what makes it American history? Who and what are included.
I graduated from High School in 1963 from a very good public high school (Mamaroneck NY) in a fairly liberal community (the township voted almost 80% for Biden) with a religiously diverse community (although some bright Catholic boys went to nearby Catholic high schools and some of the brighter kids went either to NY day schools like Horace Mann or elite boarding prep schools of the St Grottlesex variety — my AP classes tended to be disproportionately Jewish). The community had lots of highly educated parents. And yet, despite taking AP American History, I graduated from High School without knowing about Tulsa, about the real violence perpetrated against African Americans in the aftermath of the end of Reconstruction. I had next to no idea about what had been done to Native Americans, Yes, we knew a little about Custer and Little Big Horn, we perhaps knew about the Apaches and the Seminoles, but the Trail of Tears was mentioned once in passing, and the pattern of breaking treaties when it suited the Whites was never mentioned. We knew Jim Thorpe had gone to Carlisle Indian School and to the Olympics, but we did not know how many Native American children were ripped from families, forbidden to speak their languages, sent to distant boarding schools. Yes, we knew about the internment of Japanese from the West Coast because we had one Japanese American family, but it was not part of our instruction.
I want students to see history as far more than the history of “great men,” with a few women scattered in amongst them. I think we should know more about conflicts than the names of battles and generals — here I note that I knew far more than most of my classmates about either the civil War or World War II but that was because of my independent reading, The idea of including the lives of ordinary folks in the study of history is not new. Joy Hakim several decades ago produced a series titled A History of US with a batch of short books that provided material that gives such a connection. The internet makes it easy to find contemporaneous newspapers, government reports, diaries, etc., that can expand and deepen understanding. As a music major in college, I am very open to using music and theater and literature and art — think of the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the consciousness of Americans, think of the impact of protest songs and antk-war songs on those of my generation.
In short, I want to go more deeply into topics that they might not otherwlse know. Perhaps because a deeper understanding of real history does help how we are able to react to current events and issues.
Government is more of a problem. Here I note that as a Catholic School we have some very conservative families who send their boys to us. Only a bit more than half our students are even nominally Catholic. And because community and service are two of the six pillars of our educational approach, students are not in an academic bubble with a narrow perspective. Last year we had a member of the House Parliamentarian’s staff talk about the experience of January 6. I was also able to interview my friend Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in a zoom session with about a quarter of our students able to hear him answer questions they had submitted to me ahead of time. Th previous year I had brought in a retired FBI agent (married to my wife’s younger sister) who was intimately involved with 9-11 and the investigation afterward. We do try to connect our students to the real world.
So for American government, what is the real world? I know I have to go through the history of American Government and its development, and for me that requires going back to the roots, which includes habeas corpus (a concept that predates the Magna Carta), those great documents from our British roots, and the development starting even before the Declaration (think of the work of George Mason). The Petition of Right and the English Bill of Rights are important. So are the developments in individual colonies before, during, and after the Revolution,
Clearly I have to have the students understand what the Constitution and its Amendments say, buut also how what those words mean has changed over time, and what the CURRENT interpretations by SCOTUS may mean.
But we also have to look at how our institutions function. Clearly there are current issues with the filibuster — how deeply do I go into its history, how much do we look at Hamilton’s opposition to super-majorities (which is interesting given Burr’s role in setting up the filibuster)and how this compares with basically all other legislative bodies in the US. What did the Founders think about impeachment and when it might be used? Students will have been through two, I have been through 3+ (remember, technically Nixon was not impeached because he resigned before the engtire House voted on the article largely written by three Republican House Members: Cohen, Butler, and Hogan).
What about the issue of a Majority Leader in the Senate blocking any bill he didn’t like from being considered, or refusing to consider nominations (and not just Merrick Garland) — how does this comport with what the Founders designed, with what they intended?
We have some debate at least in the Senate (thanks in part to Tim Kaine) on trying to roll back things like authorizations of us for military force, to restore a proper balance of the Congress in the ma,ing of war.
What about deficits in the Federal budget? When are they justified? Was it justified to give tax cuts that did not really benefit the vast majority of Americans? How does that compare with trying to address the increasing economic imbalance in the country? Has that economic imbalance exacerbated the distortions of political power? Should a footnote in a later 19th Century Supreme Court case be a sufficient justification for granting personhood to corporations, when a corporation is not a person for jury duty, holding public office, execution, and a variety of other things?
Even as I offer these examples, I can think of so many more. Some I might not be able to address fully in a Catholic school, although I can ask — since we have partial personhood for corporations, would it be possible to grant it for a fetus? If a fetus is a human person, is it eligible for a tax deduction (would we have to grant it a social security number), does it count for HOV-2 or HOV-3 on highways/ for toll free rides?
Over the 4 weeks until I actually teach, I am going to be wrestling with a lot of these issues.
Was January 6 an insurrection? Did anyone one engaged in planning and/or inciting the riots engage in a seditious conspiracy (there is relevant federal statutory language)?
The DOJ has issued opinions under several Presidents that a sitting President cannot be criminally charged. What does that do to any statute of limitations for actions committed either before his Presidency (eg — Trump paying off two women indirectly druing thee 2016 campaign) and during nis presidency — is the limitation tolled (the clock stopping during the time, as state statutes can be tolled if a person is not available to the state authorities if they can prove s/he was (a) out of country in a known location with no extradition treaty, or (b) out of state or out of country with the location not known at the time and thus not subject to an extradition request)???
we have had from 6 to 10 authorized SCOTUS position. The number has been 9 for well over a century during which time our population has grown 8-fold. Should we have more justices? There are 13 circuits, with several having been established after the current system was set up in 1891 — eg, the 10th was added in late 1920s and the 11th in 1981. Does not that argue for at least 11 Justices? Should we have 13, one for each circuit? Should the humongous 9th circuit be split up, say CA as one circuit and all the other states (AK, HA, WA, OR, ID, MT, AZ, and certain island territories) in another?
What about the House? We have been at 435 members since the 1913 (except at 437 from 1959 until 1963 b/c of addition of AK and HA), during which time our population has tripled. Should we consider increasing the size — say doubling? In the original House the most members any state had was Virginia with 10 (but remember slaves counted as 3/5 of a person or it might have had 13) so we hav gone from a 10-1 largest to smallest ratio to a current 53-1. Oh, and after the 1790 census each House member represented 36,000+ people and today each represents on average more than 760,000. But what would be the capacity of the House chamber? We certainly cannot get 4,000 seats into it. Could we even double the size? What about all the committee hearing rooms?
And then there are more basic questions. Does our democracy even work or is it broken? How meaningful are the rights in the Bill of Rights? How has the federal relationship with the states changed? What should it be?
I have personal beliefs on ALL of these issues, some very strongly held. But my task is to provoke and challenge the thinking of my students. And because I have the freedom to do so, I think I want very much to change how I go about it. If I do, I will keep folks here posted.
Four weeks to get it together. That is a LOT of reflection to do, and if I stretch the limits, a lot of gathering of materials beyond the textbook.