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?