Sunday, September 27, 2009

Teaching Federalism

A Tough Topic in both the Classroom and American Political Life
Every year as I begin to think about teaching the concept of federalism I cringe. Do you? This is just a tough topic to get the point through to the students. I can't think of any topic in American history or American current events that has had a greater impact. Yet the concept of federalism is just hard to get across. Later in the year as we start to look at important Court cases, federalism creeps into many of them. Obviously Brown v. BOE was central to the federalism problem...can the Court order states to desegregate schools? Wasn't education a state power neither given to the national government nor denied to the states. Yet the Fourteenth Amendment clearly forbade the states from denying the civil rights of its people. Again, in the Gideon v. Wainwright case Florida's case was simply that it did not have to appoint lawyers in non-capital cases. It came down to the issue of federalism in the end.

In the newspapers today we see federalism challenged by states that wish to ignore the full faith and credit clause in the case of gay marriage. And last week in Kentucky a federal census worker was brutally murdered and "fed" inked on his body. There seems to be a renewed call to state's rights in every corner of the nation. So in short, federalism matters. This isn't an irrelevant issue of philosophy to be bantered about. This is a topic the students need to understand and understand well. But how do we do that?

This year I am taking a strong vocabulary approach to the subject. Hippocampus and my textbook do a good job covering the topic, so I am hammering on the vocabulary of the topic and making sure that the understanding is not superficial. To that end, here is the list of words I have generated to focus on during class time. I started this exercise by having the kids list on the board every term they could think of that had to do with federalism. I then linked those terms together and helped them clarify their definitions.

  • Supremacy Clause
  • Elastic Clause
  • implied powers
  • enumerated powers
  • shared powers
  • concurrent powers
  • delegated powers
  • Commerce Clause
  • 10th Amendment
  • 14th Amendment
  • full faith and credit clause
  • privileges and immunities clause
  • dual federalism
  • layer cake federalism
  • Federalist Papers #16, 17
  • cooperative federalism
  • fiscal federalism
  • marble cake federalism
  • carrot and stick policies
  • grants in aid
  • block grants
  • categorical grants
  • revenue sharing
  • formula grants
  • mandates
  • unfunded mandates
  • nullification
  • McCulloch v. Maryland
  • Gibbons v. Ogden

What makes the teaching of federalism so difficult is that all of these terms are quite vital. The above list is not just a scattered group of sort of connected thoughts...they are are totally relevant to understanding the concept. I really believe that if the list is not mastered by the students, then they will be missing huge chunks of the concept in their minds.

The trick is to drill these terms and concepts into the students without totally losing them in the process. In today's world, not an easy job. Yet I am convinced that it is the job at hand.

I may have missed something on the list, I did it from my memory which at my age is a dangerous thing to do. Let me know if I need to add something. In the mean time, start hammering away at these. It seems to me it has been a while since we have had a pure federalism question in the free response section of the AP this the year????


Elliot said...

I assume you've got [selective] incorporation in there under the Fourteenth Amendment? (Barron v. Baltimore v. 14th Amendment). Oh yes, of course. The entire reason why I found your blog in the first place was via a Google search on selective incorporation.

Basically, very generally, (correct me if I'm wrong),

Under our federal system of government,

1. The states have all powers which are not prohibited to them by their state constitutions or the federal constitution. I.e., (power) = (everything) - (constitutional prohibitions).

2. The federal government has no powers except that which is given to them by the Constitution. I.e., (power) = (nothing) + (constitutional grants, e.g., Article I, Section 8).

Very impressed with this list. Thanks for what you do! =)

Kristi G said...

Do you have any advice on how to teach federalism? I am struggling.