Social Studies

Scandal In The Classroom

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 01, 1998 4 min read
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In Bob Jacobs’ government class at Fauquier High School, the traditional fall lesson on political jargon has held more than its usual share of intrigue. With the drama of the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolding in the nation’s capital, just 45 miles away from this school in Warrenton, Virginia, words like impeachment and censure no longer seem coated with decades of dust.

Taking advantage of this, Jacobs recently led a discussion of the president’s troubles that touched on the Federalist Papers, the U.S. Constitution, and past crises that have challenged the nation—all the while skirting the scandal’s graphic details. For Jacobs, developments this fall—Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s allegations against the president and the congressional debate over an impeachment inquiry—have created what the teacher calls “the nation’s civics lesson.”

Though many teachers steered class discussion last spring away from Starr’s investigation of the president, some have seized the fall’s events to teach substantive lessons. “This is a vehicle to teach the fundamental concepts of our democracy,” Jacobs explains. “It is immediate and real, not something that happened a long time ago.”

Promoters of strong civics education programs agree that Capitol Hill’s handling of the matter offers 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,” says Margaret Branson, an associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, California. “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 unfortunate turn of events for President Clinton, according to Kenneth 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,” says 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.”

Likewise, publishers and television producers who cater to the classroom seem to have concluded that they can’t ignore the scandal because history is being made. My Weekly Reader, the venerable newsmagazine for elementary schoolchildren, broke its policy not to print anything about the scandal and has focused on the civics lessons inherent in it. Time for Kids, a classroom version of Time magazine, has broadened its coverage in its edition for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. A teachers’ guide outlines recommendations from the publication’s advisory board on how educators can use the current events in the classroom. Says Managing Editor Claudia Walls: “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.”

Pat Feichter, a government teacher at Hillary Rodham Clinton’s alma mater, Maine South High School in Park Ridge, Illinois, says teachers should use the events to let students dig deep into constitutional issues that would normally get only a glance during the school year. “It gives us a chance to look at some parts of the Constitution that do not usually get much time by classroom teachers,” he says. The 22nd Amendment, which limits the presidential term of office, and the 25th Amendment, which deals with presidential succession, are particularly good topics, he adds.

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 to dive into discussions about how the news of the day relates to history. But that, say many teachers and curriculum experts, would be a mistake.

“There are any number of places within the school curriculum where you have a chronological approach to include an important lesson like this,” contends Harvey Carmichael, the history and social studies specialist for the Virginia education department.

“In Virginia, there is a heavy emphasis on the [standards] and a strong desire by teachers to be in compliance with them,” Carmichael says. “But at the same time, we recognize there is information beyond them that needs to be taught.”

Naturally, even historically based discussions of the scandal are a risky proposition. Teachers should take every precaution to avoid the salacious details, 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.”

If nothing else, the scandal creates an opportunity for teachers to rethink how they have been teaching history and government, says 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,” he says, “it should be the question of how teachers are teaching about the Constitution.”

Quoting the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Hentoff added, “You’ve got to tell the kids stories and make the words come off the page and come alive.”

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