The unprecedented second impeachment of President Donald Trump raises a host of challenging questions for the nation’s K-12 civics and social studies teachers. To help them, we present here highlights from two stories written in fall 2019 in the lead-up to President Trump’s first impeachment.
Teachers will find some core themes in these stories that remain relevant: What is the Constitutional process for impeaching a president or other government official? What was the context for the prior impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton?
But they will need to adjust them based on the dramatic current events that have shaped this week’s historic proceeding. Those include the challenges mounted by President Trump and other politicians to a free and fair election, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and the continuing erosion of agreed-upon facts in public discourse—all unthinkable just a year ago when these stories were written.
Round Two: The Case for Teaching It
“My visceral reaction is: If not us, who else?” said Tyler Murphy, who teaches high school U.S. government and history in the Boyle County, Ky., district, at the time of Trump’s first impeachment.
It’s an argument that holds up now in 2021.
“... The ‘who else’ in this current climate we’re in is concerning. There is so much potential for misinformation, especially when we look at social media, where a lot of the quote-unquote news is unfiltered,” Murphy said at the time.
If you want to use classroom discussions, remember that teachers should first set out the norms they expect, like bringing discussions back to the analysis of facts, rather than letting emotion dominate the arguments.
Avoiding the topic doesn’t mean that students aren’t going to seek out information elsewhere, from messaging platforms to whatever they’re hearing at home on the nightly news.
Put another way, students are going to hear about this topic—and outside of the (remote) classroom, and what they hear may not be grounded in facts or structured in a way that helps them make sense of it.
The Importance of Constitutional Procedure
The U.S. Constitution is detailed in how it gives the Congress the ability to impeach and potentially remove a sitting president; lessons should strive to integrate the documents themselves.
There are plenty of online resources you can use with students to understand the impeachment/removal process and its origins, including the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution and the Constitutional Sources Project, which traces the development of constitutional thought, and has archived hundreds of different materials.
Want to deepen the historical debate still further? Try Federalist Papers 65 and 66, both penned by Alexander Hamilton as part of an effort to get New York anti-federalists on board with the not-yet-ratified U.S. Constitution.
Different Lenses for Understanding Impeachment
History experts and teachers pointed to three interlocking ways of addressing the impeachment: the Constitutional underpinnings, discussed above, and two additional avenues.
A historical, comparative lens. As a process, impeachment has been shaped by each of the eras in which it’s occurred. One powerful idea is for teachers to have students examine the articles brought against prior presidents, the media reactions of the time, and even the impeachment agitation against presidents like Ulysses Grant, who never ultimately faced a formal impeachment process.
A current events lens: This is the probably the most difficult for teachers, and certainly the one that many fear could get them into trouble given our nation’s noxious political polarization.
“Many of the social studies teachers I work with, whether they are preservice or inservice, are struggling with Trump in general, and how to maintain a level of fairness, and how to moderate classroom discussion that can get quite emotional, because he is a polarizing figure, and your politics tend to frame how you view him,” noted Christopher Martell, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, discussing the challenges of teaching the first impeachment.
And because Trump’s second impeachment has been put on a much faster timeline than the first—and many inquiries about security failures on Jan. 6 are ongoing—there are fewer primary sources to investigate.
Taking an approach that deals with the questions of “how” and “why,” and requiring students to focus on evidence, rather than normative questions about motive or whether legislators are making the right call, is one way to keep discussions centered.
The Associated Press put out this excellent just-the-facts primer that can be used with secondary students.