What Should Be Taught In American Government?

I have, as some of you know, become increasingly unhappy with teaching American Government using traditional American Government textbooks. I find them to be too oriented toward rote description of the institutions of government with masses of descriptive facts and only-marginally-relevant historical details.* As an institutionalist I like having the students learn the structural elements and how they interact–it’s essentially an engineering perspective, and I think an engineering perspective is necessary for understanding how any system functions. But one of the drawbacks of these texts is that by having a chapter on Congress, a chapter on the presidency, a chapter on the Supreme Court, a chapter on elections, etc., they rarely do a good job of tying those structural elements together and so the critical institutional/engineering issue, how the pieces interact is not well presented. I’m sympathetic to the authors, because it’s hard to write about each piece of the system without mentioning the other pieces of the system, but hard to make those references clear prior to the more in-depth discussion of those other pieces. I.e., how do you make congressional-presidential interactions clear until you’ve thoroughly explained both Congress and presidency, but how do you thoroughly explain both Congress and presidency without explaining congressional-presidential interactions?

But while sympathetic, I don’t think the current approach is acceptable. And it doesn’t hold the interest of many students, so pedagogically it’s hardly worthwhile. As a consequence, many profs shift to focusing on issues, using supplementary “issue debate” texts (like this one). Some profs swear by these, but I don’t find them that useful. First, they usually give just a pro-side and a con-side, without synthesis or comparative analysis, and most college frosh aren’t yet capable of doing the synthesis and analysis themselves. Second, and far more critical, I think, while the historical debates in them are useful, the contemporary ones tend to be about current events, rather than serious institutional/systemic debates. What value is a debate about gun control or welfare policy in understanding American government when A) the students debating those issues don’t yet understand American government, and B) the readings themselves are pure policy based (i.e., this is a good/bad policy) rather than addressing how these issues relate to the structure of the American political system (constitutional limits, separation of powers, federalism, representation, etc.)?** It’s easy to get students enthused about debating current policies, but are they really learning anything from those debates?

But at the same time I think that the political problems in the U.S. have become severe, dangerous in fact, and it seems to me that much of the cause is based on the public’s failure to understand the system’s structure, both as it was intended and as it currently functions (which in fact aren’t as different as many people think, and are different in different ways than people think). While I see this as a greater problem among conservatives, who are deeply inclined to accept simplistic mythologies without question, it’s also a problem among liberals who think government solutions to all social problems are both possible and unquestionably within Congress’s power.

So here are my questions for you:

1. What are the fundamental issues of American politics (not mere current events issues) that every student walking out of American Government class ought to understand?

2. How do I structure a text so that it teaches students about those issues in conjunction with teaching them how Congress, the presidency, elections, etc., actually work and how they interact with each other? If I got rid of the “Chapter 6: Congress,” “Chapter 7: President,” approach, what specific types of chapters do you think students should read? I.e, give me actual chapter topics that you think would be beneficial.***

As some of you know, I was trying to write my own textbook. But the approach I was taking just wasn’t working out. It was becoming far too institutional and the writing seemed almost purposely designed to deter 18 year olds from reading it. So I’m starting over, almost (but not quite) from scratch, and trying to pull in some crowd-sourced wisdom. (Of course my crowd here is pretty small, so I may have to extend my reach, but fortunately my small crowd is highly intelligent (you all have no idea just how gratifying that is to me.))

* E.g., the U.S. has gone through multiple party systems, and is now in the…6th? I think? party system (I can’t remember without looking it up). That’s interesting history, but how much of it is necessary to help students understand the current system? I’m not objecting to inclusion of historical explanation in general–quite far from it, as I think those without any historical knowledge of an institution can’t actually understand its current existence–but is a multiple choice question asking which party system we’re currently in a meaningful assessment of what the student has learned?

** E.g., Just minutes before writing this I critiqued a commenter at Ed Brayton’s blog for saying the Citizens United decision was “bizarre.” I can fully understand, and sympathize, with why a person would want Congress to be able to limit corporate political expenditures, but the “bizarre decision” claim can only be based on a failure to understand the distinction between policy decisions and constitutional decisions. Even if a good constitutional argument can be made in favor of that congressional power, the argument that the First Amendment’s limits on congressional authority don’t include a loophole vis a vis corporate spending is legally solid enough that it can’t be considered bizarre by any reasonably knowledgeable person. It’s that kind of distinction and understanding that I want to impart to my students, and the standard textbooks don’t do it.

*** Example: Every textbook explains how a bill becomes a law, and while they say most bills never become law, by only describing how a bill becomes a law they ultimately leave the impression that becoming law is the standard, despite the disclaimer. So I am developing a (brief) essay on “How a Bill Does Not Become a Law,” using the Asian Carp threat to the Great Lakes as a case study. Could a whole stand-alone (rather than just supplemental) American Gov’t text be based on case studies?

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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6 Responses to What Should Be Taught In American Government?

  1. Pinky says:

    It’s interesting to read that you are a structuralist. Are you familiar with Talcott Parsons?
    In any event, here’s something I picked up in a lecture given by Jurgen Habermas:
    ““Modernity/’s Consciousness of Time and Its Need for Self-Reassurance”:

    “What Weber depicted was not only the secularization of Western culture, but also and especially the development of modern societies from the viewpoint of rationalization. The new structures of society were marked by the differentiation of the two functionally intermeshing systems that had taken shape around the organizational cores of the capitalist enterprise and the bureaucratic state apparatus. Weber understood this process as the institutionalization of purposive-rational economic and administrative action. To the degree that everyday life was affected by this cultural and societal rationalization, traditional forms of life—which in the early modern period were differentiated primarily according to one’ trade—were dissolved. (Bold underlined my emphasis)?

  2. Pinky says:

    What should be taught and who should have the say so about what that is?
    Looks like that’s an area of the intermeshing of which Max Weber makes reference in the Habermas quote. That seems to be what we’re trying to get worked out in our present social dilemma..

    When you get out of the box and see reality that way, your entire perspective is changed and the political shams are exposed for what they are.

  3. James Hanley says:

    Pinky, Actually, I work at a different level structure. I’m interested in the design of specific institutions, not large scale general structures of the sort sociologists are interested in. E.g., social structure in U.S. politics rather bores me, but I can find studying the structure of a bureaucratic agency exciting (that’s probably congruent with my general “micro, not macro” approach to everything). For better or worse, I received some hard pushes away from the Parsons kind of structuralism as an undergrad. I still vividly remember Dr. Clark rolling his eyes while dolorously intoning “graaaannnd theory, ala Talcott Parsons.”

    I do appreciate Weber, though, more and more as time goes by. Not that I’ve read lots, but his “Politics as a vocation,” an essay I once found dull and unenlightening, has lately come to strongly influence my understanding of government in general.

    As to Habermas, all I can say is that a standing joke among my grad school friends was that one of us (none of us ever having read him) should stick the phrase “Habermas, blah, blah, blah,” in his dissertation, just to see if anyone on the committee was reading closely enough to catch it. None of us ever did, and Habermas remains to far afield for me to say anything meaningful at all about him. Sadly, “Habermas, blah, blah, blah” remains the limit of my understanding.

  4. “As to Habermas, all I can say is that a standing joke among my grad school friends was that one of us (none of us ever having read him) should stick the phrase “Habermas, blah, blah, blah,” in his dissertation, just to see if anyone on the committee was reading closely enough to catch it.”

    A friend of mine wrote a long, boring paper for some class and suddenly started talking about basketball around page thirty-five or so. If I recall correctly, he got a B+ with the comment “interesting in parts”.

    I think you might find some inspiration in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. I finished it yesterday, and the micro-structure of government institutions is a recurring motif. The main thrust of the book is that there are two factions trying to lead the IRS: the first faction is comprised of “conservative” types who see tax-paying as civic virtue, as the citizen’s responsibility to his fellow citizen and for purposes common to us all; the second faction are the “pragmatists” who want to run the IRS as a revenue-maximizing machine, like a corporation. These two factions come to metaphorical blows when a member of the second group creates a computer to detect cheating and wants a demonstration against the most talented human tax examiners.

    I’m working on a review of the book which should go up on my site today or tomorrow if you’re interested in reading more. Anyways, I highly recommend the book for your purposes.

  5. I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but here are some answers for your first question, some are more concrete than others:

    1. The “Imperial Presidency.”

    2. Expansion of the federal government’s power under the commerce clause.

    3. The change in the nature of (what is perceived to be) the Supreme Court’s “activism” from (again, what is perceived to be) its willingness to strike down “economic legislation” to its willingness to ratify a more civil libertarian reading of the Constitution (e.g., right to privacy, etc.). (I realize that much of my characterization is questionable, but this appears to me to be a long-standing way of looking at the issue).

    4. The distinction between “dual” and “cooperative” federalism.

    5. State-level and municipal level governance (not sure if this is a “theme” but I imagine it’s important to cover some aspect of this).

    6. The strength of “civil society” vis-a-vis state (state and federal) power.

    7. International relations. (I’m almost completely ignorant of IR, but I know it’s important.)

    As for your second question, I’m not sure I’d know how to organize the text, although I agree that going over the historical iterations of “party systems” (which historians don’t seem to agree on….I’ve known some who, as you cite, claim there have been 6 or so, while others say there has been only two) is confusing and none-too-useful. I imagine the challenge you face is that students need something of a primer in the basics of government–how a bill becomes a law, for example–in order to address the more complicated issues you’d like your students to see. I’m not sure how to resolve that problem (for one thing, I’m not a political scientist). But I imagine a series of chapters, each devoted to a current-ish event issue might be the way to go. Here’s my 8 cents worth (it’s a bit “court”-heavy, unfortunately):

    1. Examine the court case INS v. Chadha (c. 1982?): demonstrates mechanics of how a bill becomes a law (the notion of a “congressional veto” is struck down by the Court) and judicial review.

    2. The “line-item veto” movement of the 1990s: again, demonstrates how a bill becomes a law, presidential power and its limits, and judicial review. Also is interesting when it comes to political party dynamics: a Republican-controlled Congress that owed much of its antipathy to the sitting Democratic president enacted a policy that would have effectively given this same president more political power.

    3. The controversy over Obama’s intervention in Libya: demonstrates “Imperial Presidency” and the War Power Act.

    4. Comparing Lopes v. U.S. with Raich v. Gonzales: illustrates the limits and expansiveness of commerce clause power.

    5. Look at the Kelo decision: eminent domain, etc.

    6. Some local-level controversy or issue. You’d probably pick something relevant to Michigan, but one thing I have a passing familiarity, the recent Cook County Board elections here in Illinois, might be interesting: charges of corruption and cronyism along with problems of county debt: the election in general illustrates some local issues.

    7. The impeachment of Clinton.

    I hope these help. Whatever the worth of any of my suggestions, I would recommend starting with something like INS v. Chadha because, in my view, it implicates the three branches of government in a way that offers a “teachable moment.” (Note: I dislike this term with a passion, and I promise to try never to use it again.)

  6. James Hanley says:

    Pierre–Wow, are you ever on my wavelength. Even though I hadn’t specifically thought of each of those items for this approach, you more or less hit my most-favored list of issues. And that helps by leading me to think that maybe I really could structure an introductory text around specific case studies. Chadha is a brilliant thought, although it might take some exceptional writing to make it really clear to 18 year olds. Thanks.

    Christopher–Thanks. I’ll definitely check out The Pale King.

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