Thursday, October 8, 2009

Political Parties...Teaching Controversy

A Funny Thing Happened in Class This Year...

Teaching the Political Party unit in APGOPO is usually a great deal of fun. By the time students are seniors they have become aware of the political environment in the nation and many of them watch the pundits on Fox or CNN or Comedy Central and have entered the earliest stages of forming a political philosophy. This can make for a very fun class discussion on political parties...but it can also lead to controversy that can be fraught with land mines for a teacher.

With this in mind, I try to always begin a unit on political parties with a couple of class rules firmly entrenched. First, we are discussing politics and all discussion should be done as the Founding Fathers intended..with civil discourse as the basic rule. I like to relate the story of Jefferson/Adams to the students. While these two towers of the early republic differed on almost all subjects of government, their respect and admiration for each other resulted in civility that should become the model for all Americans.

Second, all statements of political philosophy must be backed up with factual evidence...we are after all Political Scientist. The science aspect has its traditions back to Francis Bacon who would argue that observation and experimentation are necessary to understand a theory. Thus in my classes if students want to expound a theory they must produce the facts. Mindlessly repeating babble from televised "experts" is not allowed.

OK, with these rules I have an activity I like to do in class. I divide the class into two groups (after giving a very brief explanation of the political continuum) based on party affiliation. Typically my classes break 50/50 Republican and Democrat, or at least near enough to do the activity. Once we are split, I ask each group to produce a large poster (I give them a 3 foot by 3 foot sheet of butcher block paper) with their concept of what their Party stands for (a) socially, (b) politically, (c) economically, and (d) Constitutionally. They are not allowed to use books or Internet...this is just an activity to see how accurate they understand their Party's core beliefs.

Once this is done each group presents to the other and then the posters are hung in the room. during the presentations I allow questioning and a free flow of ideas to happen. Step two involves some real work. Each group is then charged to view the most current (2008) platform of their Party and to tear that platform down, summarize it, and present the summary to the other group. In the process of the presentations, we compare the assumptions of the group on the Parties core beliefs to the reality of the Party's Platform. (Republican Platform Democratic Platform)

On any given year I find that intuitively the students' perceptions are fairly accurate and that while there are always a few surprises in the discrepancy between assumed Party issue positions and the reality of these positions, these tend to be minor. What happens, however, is that in the process of relating Party lines to each other, the students come to understand that while the means to achieving the end may differ somewhat, both Parties have common goals. In other words, the students are able to understand that the Parties gravitate toward moderation and that the extreme views often shouted the loudest in the media are not the core values of their respective Party.

Several things happen in this exercise. First, students learn to discuss political ideologies and philosophies with civility. Second, students better understand the Party that they believe best reflects their own budding ideologies. The former is a valuable lesson for not only the class, but also for entering life. The latter can either entrench a student in their early ideology and party identification or it can challenge them to reevaluate the values they thought they held.

This year I did have a problem that never occurred before. In one of my classes I ended up with 95% of the class claiming to be of one party, leaving only a couple of students to shoulder the work in the other party. What was interesting was that after the first day, several of the student in the major party came to me and asked it they could switch groups. While one issue drove them initially to one party, the more careful study of the platform demonstrated to them that the other party's umbrella was more inviting.

Here is a fun twist on this project...make the groups look at the Platform of the opposing party and then make the presentations. The results end up very similar, but it puts a new light on the process. The bottom line in teaching the political parties is to embrace the controversy while encouraging the civility.

No comments: