A Lesson In Civics

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In Bob Jacobs' government class at Fauquier High School, the introductory lesson on political jargon and other pertinent technical terms that he opens with each fall has held uncommon intrigue for this year's seniors. The ordinary lexicon of the class--which includes terms like impeachment, high crimes and misdemeanors, and censure--has perked up the ears of many students and roused them from their slouched positions.

With the drama unfolding over a possible impeachment inquiry into alleged misconduct by President Clinton, many of the students at the school in Warrenton, Va., have been more attuned than usual to the inner workings of the nation's capital 45 miles away.

Mr. Jacobs, who has been teaching this subject for 30 years, skillfully avoided most of the graphic details of the story one day last week as he wove the vocabulary words into a discussion about the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, the crises that have challenged the nation throughout its history, and the president's current troubles.

Down the hall in Ben McCartney's Advanced Placement government course, the class of seniors took a break from the Colonial era to debate the decisions facing the 105th Congress. Are there grounds for impeaching Mr. Clinton? Should the president resign? Did the independent counsel investigating the matter exceed the boundaries of his authority? What does the Constitution say about how lawmakers should deal with the White House scandal?

For most students, the functions of government and their historical roots are often little more than dry details with no real connection to their everyday lives.

But as Kenneth W. Starr's report to the U.S. House circulated this month--laying out what the independent counsel sees as evidence that Mr. Clinton committed perjury, obstructed justice, and abused his power in covering up an affair with a former White House intern--teachers who earlier this year had approached the scandal with great caution began turning the latest news into substantive lessons about the foundations of the republic.

From Snickers to Substance

The developments this month have created what Mr. Jacobs calls "the nation's civics lesson"--and an unavoidable opportunity to infuse real life into the classroom.

"This is a vehicle to teach the fundamental concepts of our democracy," Mr. Jacobs explained. "It is immediate and real, not something that happened a long time ago."

It may also be the best way to quell the nervous snickering over the explicit details of Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, which many teachers have worked hard to avoid, and steer the conversation to one based on sound academic principles. That is a challenge teachers have grappled with since the story first broke eight months ago. ("Clinton's Troubles a Tough Issue for Teachers," Feb. 18, 1998.)

Promoters of strong civics education programs see the process now under way on Capitol Hill as a chance to examine the ideals and political thinking of the Founding Fathers and their relevance to modern life.

"I think that the whole thing really underscores the great need for doing appropriate civics education in the United States," said Margaret Branson, an associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif. "The important thing is to make sure we're not substituting teaching about current events for teaching about the basic values and tenets of a constitutional system. Otherwise, we're focusing on a fleeting moment in a period of more than 200 years in which we have faced many a constitutional crisis."

The historical lessons are evident within the context of the current scandal, Ms. Branson added. And in Mr. Jacobs' and Mr. McCartney's classes, and in hundreds of others around the country, the connection was made--to the House vote to impeach President Andrew Johnson in 1868 and his acquittal by just one vote in the Senate; the Senate's 1834 censure of President Andrew Jackson, which was later rescinded; and the impeachment proceedings that led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974.

'The Past Matters'

The unfortunate turn of events for President Clinton, according to Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, is a tempting lure to get students interested in their nation's history.

"I do believe that any time we have a big media event like this, it is an opportunity to use it to look back and reflect on the past," said Mr. Jackson, who was the chairman of the Bradley Commission on History Education. The commission wrote a critical report on the teaching of history in 1987. "We have to show people why the past still matters."

That approach also seems to be the one of choice for publishers and television producers who cater to the classroom. Time for Kids, a classroom version of Time magazine, kept its initial coverage of the Lewinsky matter brief and vague, alluding to allegations that the president had a "girlfriend" in its edition for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. The latest edition deals with the release of the report and the case Mr. Starr has laid out against the president. It mentions only that the case involves an "inappropriate relationship." Its version for younger students makes no mention of the issue.

In the teachers' guide to Time for Kids, managing editor Claudia Wallis explains the handling of the news and outlines suggestions from the publication's advisory board of teachers. Students should be told to ask their parents if they have questions about the sexual matters outlined in the report and in the media, she said.

"We suggest they make it a lesson on checks and balances, what the Constitution is, and the important fact that no one is above the law, not even the president," Ms. Wallis said.

The Internet version of Channel One, the advertising-supported television news program for classrooms, led with a story on impeachment last week. The New York Times, which unveiled its new Learning Network on the World Wide Web last week, has made a curriculum on the subject available to teachers. And My Weekly Reader, the venerable newsmagazine for elementary school children, has broken from its previous policy of not printing anything about the scandal to focus on the civic lessons inherent in it. All avoid the more sensitive details of the story.

Teachers should take every precaution to do the same, according to Richard Theisen, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies and a teacher at Osseo High School on the outskirts of Minneapolis.

"They need to teach this carefully and make a judgment about where the child is in terms of psychological development, maturity level," he said. "This is not meant to be a lesson in human sexuality."

Escaping Sequence

But even the G-rated lesson plans that can be designed from the current constitutional debate may be difficult to explain to students whose summer sunburns have barely had time to fade. Some teachers, experts say, may be reluctant to dive into discussions about complicated legal issues and elements of the Constitution that are foreign to students who are only a few weeks into their government or civics classes.

Especially in states and districts that have content-laden academic standards in the core subjects, some teachers may feel there is no time to break from the prescribed sequences of topics.

But that, say many teachers and curriculum experts, would be a mistake.

A basic outline of the Constitution can be taught in about 20 minutes, Ms. Branson said. And even the most prescriptive of standards documents were not intended to overshadow real-world lessons, she noted.

"There are any number of places within the school curriculum where you have a chronological approach to include an important lesson like this," said Harvey R. Carmichael, the history and social studies specialist for the Virginia education department. Even in Virginia's standards, which have been criticized by some educators as leaving little time for incorporating larger lessons beyond the names and dates of history, there should be room, he said.

"In Virginia, there is a heavy emphasis on the [standards] and a strong desire by teachers to be in compliance with them," Mr. Carmichael said. "But at the same time, we recognize there is information beyond them that needs to be taught. As the events [unfold], they may eventually catch up with the school calendar, but we encourage teachers not to miss the moment."

It is also a chance for students to research in depth those constitutional issues that would normally get only a glance during the school year, said Pat Feichter, a government teacher at Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Ill., whose most famous graduate is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It gives us a chance to look at some parts of the Constitution that do not usually get much time by classroom teachers," Mr. Feichter said. The 22nd Amendment, which limits the presidential term of office, and the 25th Amendment, which deals with presidential succession, are particularly good topics, he said.

It is also an ideal opportunity to allow students to research the topic on the Internet, he said, although the age of the student may be a factor in determining which materials are most appropriate.

Reflecting on Teaching

For the early elementary grades, teachers may be much more limited in their ability to capitalize on the news of the day.

Teachers at all grade levels, though, should be struggling with how they have been teaching history and government, according to Nat Hentoff, who writes about constitutional law, civil rights, and education as a syndicated newspaper columnist.

"If anything comes out of this that might last a while, it should be the question of how teachers are teaching about the Constitution," Mr. Hentoff said. "As William Brennan [the late U.S. Supreme Court justice] said, 'You've got to tell the kids stories and make the words come off the page and come alive.'"

The events now unfolding in Washington are just such an opportunity, Mr. Hentoff said.

But the issues surrounding President Clinton are not the first in this century to offer such a compelling lesson, said Steve Janger, the president and founder of the Close Up Foundation, a nonprofit citizenship-education organization based in Washington.

Just as Watergate and the Vietnam War held lessons about getting involved in government, he said, the current discussions over a possible impeachment or censure of the president can provide a powerful example of a democracy at work.

"The one thing that stands out above all else is that the government survived through all those crises," Mr. Janger said.

Many students are aware that the presidential crisis of their generation is one that they will remember.

"It's great to be able to talk about how government affects things day to day," said Ethan Comstock, a student in Mr. McCartney's class at Virginia's Fauquier High.

"This makes the Constitution more relevant," added his classmate Peter Jacobs, the teacher's son. "There is usually no talk about the Constitution in everyday life."

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as A Lesson In Civics
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Clarification: This article inadvertently changed the meaning of Ms. Branson's comment about the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Branson said the document can be read in about 20 minutes, but takes a lifetime to study.

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