Teaching American History Amidst the 2016 Presidential Election

I no longer teach American government, and given the current presidential election cycle, I am incredibly grateful for that. When you teach government during a major election year, you end up talking about the election nearly every day for obvious reasons. When you teach American history, like I do now, while you can’t and shouldn’t just ignore an election, it doesn’t take front and center as it does in a government or current events course. If I had to talk about this election every single day from August to November, and look happy while I did so, I think it might send me screaming from the classroom. I’m joking but just barely.

Nevertheless, kids are kids. I know my students will ask questions and (attempt to) make provocative comments about this election throughout the fall, and I’ve been trying to figure out the best response that will allow me to both keep my sanity and prove fruitful for my students. It is not my place as a teacher to tell students what to think about the current election and the candidates but to teach students how to critically examine information, the sources of that information, evidence in support of an argument, etc. Given that none of my students are of voting age and will thus not actually be casting a vote for any candidate in this election, I think the best thing I can do for my students in this instance is to redirect their questions and comments away from this single election to something even more important, something that may help them when they do finally have the privilege to vote.

For example, it is inevitable that some student, probably more than one, will ask, “For whom are you voting?” I never answer this question because (a) I don’t want to unduly influence my students, (b) I don’t want students to automatically tune me out because I’m voting for the “enemy,” and (c) it’s none of their business. But instead of saying any of this, this year when a student asks this question, my response will be, “That’s not the important question. The more important question is What am I voting for and why?” I know my students will think I’m talking about “the issues” when I say this, but I’m hoping I can steer the conversation in a different direction than even the specific issues of 2016. What would it be like to get students thinking about questions like the following? • What is the role of government?

  • What did the Founders think about this? What about subsequent generations of Americans?
  • What is the role of a president? Has this always been the case? What’s changed over time? •
  • What is the relationship between the president and Congress, between the President and citizens, etc.?

I’d like to contend to my students that only after they’ve thought through these things and made some tentative conclusions should they begin to examine the specific issues and the individual candidates. Every candidate makes promise after promise; every candidate says he or she will fix everything from the economy to education to healthcare. If you do not believe, however, that something is in the purview of the president, then these promises do not matter a whole lot. In fact, these promises, even those that sound lovely, may mean voting for someone else, someone who aligns better with your understanding of what a president should and should not do. If I can get students to think about the role of government first, specific issues second, and candidates last, I’d feel like I’d accomplished something.

The nice thing with a conversation like this, as opposed to a shouting match about Clinton v. Trump, is the fact that it does dovetail perfectly with the history of the United States. Americans throughout history have been debating what government should and should not do. Getting students to examine this election, or any election, in light of these historical arguments serves dual purposes. They learn something about the history of their country, and they learn how to enter into this longstanding dialogue over the role of government in society. They can begin to see connections between the past and the present.

After being asked about my own personal voting, the second most often heard comment in my classroom during major elections is along the following lines: If you don’t vote, you are not being a good citizen. With this particular election, I imagine I will hear something along the lines of this: If you don’t vote for Trump, that’s as if you voted for Clinton. Or vice versa. I think the best way to deal with these types of comments is for a little lesson on civic virtue. My students will know about civic virtue from our lessons on the American Revolution and the Early Republic, but they may need reminding. Civic virtue may include exercising one’s right to vote, but voting alone does not automatically confer on one civic virtue. A few questions for my students: •

  • What is a citizen versus a subject? What is a republic, and how is it different from a democracy?
  • What is civic virtue? How has it changed since the days of the Founding Fathers?
  • Does voting alone make someone a good citizen?
  • Does not voting in a given election or elections automatically make someone less virtuous in terms of civic virtue?
  • What happens when one’s principles conflict with the realities of a given election? Is it okay for one person to vote on principles without compromising and one to compromise? Is one of these people smarter or morally superior to the other?
  • Should someone be asked to vote against her conscience to help a candidate or party win an election?

I know what will happen when we start delving into these questions. Some student will invariably invoke the “Yes, but” argument. Yes, but this is a really, really important election. This election matters. Everyone has to vote. (This student almost invariably means that everyone has to vote so long as they are going to vote for the right candidate.) Yes, elections are important, and yes, this one seems particularly important…now. Only history will tell us how important. Speaking of history, here are some questions for my students to consider:

  • Which particular presidential elections have served as turning points in American history and how so?
  • Which elections seemed like they would be incredibly important at the time but actually changed very little?
  • What might have been different if Jefferson, Lincoln, LBJ, etc. had not been elected?
  • What might have been different if Stevenson, Willkie, Goldwater, etc, had been elected?

So there it is. My imperfect plan on how to teach amidst the 2016 presidential election. How many days until the election again?

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