Tag Archives: US Politics

Cool Link for the Classroom: The Periodic Table of the Presidents

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

Periodic Table of the Presidents, courtesy of Periodicpresidents.com

A huge thanks to P.J. Creek for sharing his amazing work here at the Neighborhood.

P.J. is an eighth grade social studies teacher and came up with a fun new tool to look at the American Presidency.  Noticing that the traditional flashcards and reference pages didn’t give a complete picture, he decided to borrow from the science department and create a tool that isn’t simply to look at inert gases and carcinogenic radioactive compounds that last a split second.

The Periodic Table of the Presidents is just that: an ordered, logical snapshot of the last two centuries of the executive branch.  It’s numbered 1 to 44, and I don’t have to tell you who’s 1 and who’s 44 (do I really?).  Like the other periodic table, the PTOTP gives each president a two-letter designation, color based on political party, years in office, number of times elected, and other info such as assassinations, resignations, etc.

(Again, do we need to go over who got shot and who quit before they did?)

If it were simply a table, the PTOTP would be a nifty little poster for the classroom.  Thankfully, P.J.’s website includes information on each president, links to further information, electoral maps, a portrait gallery and even his own articles on interesting tales such as “Tecumseh’s curse“, or the death in office of any President elected in a year with a zero at the end (probably since debunked by Reagan and George W. Bush).

You can order the poster for your classroom for 10 dollars–but buy before July 11 and get 2 posters for one.  The PTOTP is a really neat way to explore the American presidency.  It shows the flow of parties, terms in office, important facts and especially how the transfer of power has endured pretty smoothly for two centuries.

At the very least, you can fool all those folks in the STEM departments into thinking you’re teaching science…hey, anything to save a good social studies teacher their job!

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The “Corrupt Bargain” of the 1824 Presidential Election

Electoral College Results for 1824. Courtesy of Wikipedia

There is no such thing as a one-party system.

Whenever a political group manages to dominate all the others, there’s only one thing for the top dogs to do: fight among themselves.

From Commie red to Fascist black, the song remains the same: Stalin vs. Trotsky, Hitler vs. Rohm, Castro vs. Che, Mao vs. Deng, and in 1824, Jackson vs. Adams vs. Crawford vs. Clay.

The 1824 presidential election was rife with mudslinging, regional balkanization, backroom dealing, alliance building, nursing old grudges and settling old scores. It would be the first-and last-time only one political party would vie for the presidency—and in the process, throw politics and the Constitution into chaos.

It all began with a war hero.

Andrew Jackson, hero of the Creek War, the War of 1812, and the Seminole Wars, thought himself a perfect fit for the top job in 1824. Tough and ornery, with a series of duels under his belt, Jackson amassed a fortune selling horses and gambling to become a gentleman planter in Tennessee—the direct opposite of his upbringing in the Carolina backcountry. Yet he appealed to common folks in the South and the frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee as a sort of “common man.”

His main rival was anything but common.

John Quincy Adams was born into public service, literally. The son of the second President of the United States, Adams accompanied his father on his trips to Europe during the Revolution (and compiled an impressive diplomatic resume in the process). As secretary of state, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, as well as drafted the main ideas of the Monroe Doctrine. A favorite of New England (naturally), Adams felt he was due for the Presidency.

(and unlike another son of a chief executive, Adams was genuinely astute, brilliant and principled.)

If it were just these two, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. Yet two other rivals also come into the race-one a member of numerous Cabinets, the other a Speaker of the House that was a master of the backroom deal.

William Crawford was a Georgia Senator who also served as Minister to France, Secretary of War and Secretary of a Treasury. It makes for an impressive candidate except for one thing: Crawford suffered a stroke the year before, brought on by a side effect of a doctor’s prescription. Even though Crawford recovered—even receiving the endorsements of former Presidents James Madison and Thomas Jefferson—his campaign was never the same.

The last of the candidates was Henry Clay, known to history as the “Great Compromiser.” Most historians view him as a great orator and politician. In my mind, Clay was the first great Congressional wheeler-dealer in history. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, and later a United States Senator, Clay would be instrumental in the most important legislative deals of the 19th century: the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Nullification crisis, etc. He was the epitome of the great orator, a man who could charm anyone into voting for anything.

He also hated Andrew Jackson with a passion.

Referring to Jackson’s victory in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Clay scoffed: “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.” It isn’t much of an argument: Washington was responsible for quite a few British scalps himself. Yet Clay made his point; military victory alone does not a President make (a point often lost on the electorate, even then).

All the candidates had one thing in common: they were all Democratic-Republicans.

Since the Federalist Party imploded during the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans had been the only real political force for almost a decade. The previous President, James Monroe, ran without any opposition, demonstrating the Dem-Rep dominance of the period.

But, as expected, the unity couldn’t last. Tensions ran high, scores needed to be settled, and regions were quick to attack other areas of the United States. Welcome to the US in 1824, eerily similar to the Yugoslavia of 1994, minus the bloodthirsty militias and hard-to-pronounce surnames.

As Election Day neared, all four candidates were staking out their bases—and not much else. Adams was popular in the Northeast. Jackson, now less frontiersman and more planter, was a friend of the South. Crawford, on the other hand, had supporters in the Old South states of Georgia and Virginia, old planters that feared Jackson’s popular support. Parts of the West, especially the old Northwest Territory, supported Clay.

The results, as expected, provided little clarity.

Although more and more states were using the popular vote to decide their Electors to the Electoral College, Many still relied on the state legislature to make the decision, making the ballots cast a moot point. In 1824, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina and Vermont still didn’t trust their citizens enough to choose Electors for the top job. So bear that in mind when reading the results:

Presidential Candidate

 

Popular Vote(a)

Electoral Vote

Count

%

Andrew Jackson(b)  

151,271

41.3

99

John Quincy Adams(e)  

113,122

30.9

84

William Harris Crawford(c)  

40,856

11.2

41

Henry Clay(d)  

47,531

13.0

37

(Massachusetts unpledged electors)  

6,616

1.8

0

Other

6,437

1.8

0

Total

365,833

100.0%

261

Needed to win

131

Although Jackson won the most votes, and the most Electors, he didn’t win a majority. He won 41% of the popular vote (again, without the votes of 6 states) and 99 out of a possible 261 Electors. Too bad he needed 131 to win.

So for the second time in America’s history, the US House of Representatives will decide the winner.

This time, however, was different from the last mess. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson failed to secure the majority of Electors for the Presidency, the US House of Representatives acted under different rules. Under those rules, the winner became President, and second place became Vice-President. With a little conniving by a West Indian New York lawyer and former Cabinet secretary named Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson won the tiebreaking vote, and his opponent Aaron Burr become the veep—only to snuff out Hamilton on the dueling grounds of Weehawken four years later.

The 1824 debacle would be decided under the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1804. It served to make the process less messy and more straightforward. Now, President and Vice-President were cast as separate ballots. In the House, each state would vote amongst the top three vote-getters. Each representative would vote their preference, but the final vote is cast by state (usually the majority among the state’s representatives).

Henry Clay, as the fourth runner, was left out—just in time for him to do some back-parlor magic.

As Crawford was a non-issue thanks to the stroke, the House machinations came between Jackson and Adams. Clay, as Speaker of the House and a political boss to a sizeable number of Congressmen, was in the enviable position of kingmaker. It didn’t take long for him to make a decision.

Politically, Adams’ policies on internal improvements and tariffs for promoting domestic industry was along the lines of Clay’s ideas as well (funny enough, the ideas were actually the brainchild of 1800 kingmaker Hamilton, as the first Secretary of the Treasury.) Furthermore, Clay saw Adams as more “presidential.” He came from a leading family. He held high positions in government for most of his life. He understood the domestic and international rigors of the job.

Jackson, to Clay, was no more than an ill-bred, hillbilly Napoleon with a rabble of voters and a workload done by slaves (all of which has some truth to it). Also, Jackson had an unsavory reputation for dueling, stealing women, horse betting—the sort of backcountry foolishness that would make both Boston Brahmins and Virginia planters cringe.

Finally, though no one could substantiate this claim, an anonymous account in a Philadelphia newspaper claimed that Clay sold his vote to Adams in exchange for a Cabinet post, namely Secretary of State. It was neither confirmed nor denied, and we won’t know the whole story, but such a deal would make sense: Adams and three previous Presidents had been Secretary of State, making it a logical step for an heir to the top office.

House Votes in the 1824 Election. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

So promises were made, deals were struck, cigars were smoked and hands were shook. When the votes were counted on February 9, 1825, all of Clay’s glad-handing and backslapping paid off. Adams won on the first ballot, with 13 states. Jackson wins 7 states, with Crawford bringing up the rear with 4.

Jackson and his supporters were shocked at the vote. For the next four years, the Jacksonians, soon to evolve into the modern Democratic Party, would hound and harass the Adams administration, accusing them of colluding into a “corrupt bargain” to secure the Presidency.

Adams, for one, immediately offered Clay the Secretary of State job. This did nothing to help his reputation, as the increasing number of states using popular votes would make a second term difficult. It also didn’t help that Adams attempted a principled, prudent set of policies with a Congress packed with his enemies. It virtually ensured that Adams would lose the rematch to Jackson in 1828—which is exactly what happened.

Jackson would win two terms as President, and would be decried and applauded for extending executive power in the federal government. His exploits, both good and bad, were so famous that the era itself adopted his name—“The Age of Jackson.”

Adams would serve 17 years as a US Congressman after he left office in 1829, this time as a member of the Whig Party. His last years were incredibly productive: Adams would be a steadfast champion against slavery and the slave trade, especially serving as counsel in the famous 1841 Amistad case. All of this, of course, made Jackson the slaveholder hate Adams even more.

Crawford, the third man in the voting of the 1824 election, recovered very well from his stroke—even though it was too late to convince the voters. Adams offered Crawford to stay on as Treasury Secretary. Crawford, sensing his own mortality and probably the changing political winds, declined and returned to Georgia. He served as an active state superior court judge until his death in 1834.

So what happened to Henry Clay, the man whose backroom deals vaulted Adams to the White House?

Well, the Department of State was no longer the stepping stone it once was.

Clay, who became a US Senator after he left the Adams administration, would try four times for the high office. In 1832, the Clay campaign was thrashed by the ever-popular Andrew Jackson. He would try to get the Whig nomination in 1840, but another war hero stopped him in William Henry Harrison. Clay would get the Whig nomination in 1844, but James Polk would beat him in the general election. Finally, yet another war hero, Mexican War general Zachary Taylor, would beat Clay yet again for the Whig nomination in 1848.

So what are the lessons we learn from the clusterfuck that was the 1824 election?

First, the laws are necessarily meant to produce a popular result—just ask Andrew Jackson.

Second, when someone is felled by a near-fatal illness, it’s hard to convince an electorate otherwise—just ask William Crawford.

Third, even when the contest it’s over, it’s never really over—just ask John Quincy Adams.

You don’t have to remind Henry Clay twice about the best laid plans of mice and men.

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Can iCivics.org make Politics Fun? A Website Review

Who would’ve thought political backstabbing, smear campaigns and pandering to the electorate would be so fun?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.

With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.

Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.

The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.

I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.

How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?

Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?

What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?

Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?

Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.

iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.

One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.

I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.

Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.

It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?

Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.

In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.

One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.

The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.

Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).

They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.

The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.

Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington.  To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.

Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.

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Election Day 2010: Quotes on Democracy and Elections

"The County Election" by George Caleb Bingham (1852)

The Neighborhood will be on a brief hiatus as I will be consulting with the Associated Press on elections results from Election Day.  It’ll be a long night, and Mr. D needs his beauty rest.

Yet before I retire, it is important to stress, even if the kids aren’t there tomorrow, the importance of Election Day.  Our representative democracy works on only one principle: the people are the ultimate power.  The only way people can exercise that power fully is by voting for their respective political leaders.

Regardless of your political affiliaton, make sure you get out and vote tomorrow.  Take your time.  Study the candidates and issues.  But most importantly, make a decision.  The engine of government cannot run without our say-so.

To fill the mind and provide discussion, here are various quotes about elections and democracy: some in praise, many in scorn, yet still others with a keen eye on what is necessary for a lasting democratic society.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” – Lord Acton

“The 20th century has been characterized by four developments of great importance: the growth of political democracy, the growth of Online Democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting
corporate power against democracy.” – Alex Care

“One does not export democracy in an armored vehicle.” – Jacques Chirac

“All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place.” – Will Durant

“When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It’s a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government.  Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good
feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” – Alexander Hamilton

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H.L. Mencken

“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely.  It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” – H. L. Mencken

“Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And —
since women are a majority of the population — we’d all be married to Mel Gibson.” – P.J. O’Rourke

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” – Gore Vidal

“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” – Robert Orben

“Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.” – Franklin Adams

“Elections should be held on April 16th-the day after we pay our income taxes. That is one of the few things that might discourage politicians from being big spenders.” – Thomas Sowell

“No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” – Winston
Churchill

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill

“Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” – Bertrand Russell

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.” – G. K. Chesterton

“Education and democracy have the same goal: the fullest possible development of human capabilities.” – Paul Wellstone

“Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

…and the last word goes to the honest one himself.  We need his words now more than ever.

“You may fool all the people some of the time; you may fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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Movies for the Classroom: Decisions that Shook the World

“My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” ~ George Washington

As many here in the Neighborhood are aware, I am not a huge fan of the policies of President Obama. 

However, I do appreciate the difficulties he faces in making decisions that carry far-reaching consequences.  As the above quote suggests, George Washington, our first President, understood this far too well.

In fact, nearly every President since Washington has reached that point: the place where you cannot delegate any more authority, you cannot “pass the buck” any further to a lower-ranking peon.  The President, and only the President, has to make the decision–and people will be unhappy one way or another.

There’s no certainty that the decision he made was the right one.  It may be many years before that decision is vindicated or villified.  Few people can make such leaps in the dark without some sort of mental or emotional breakdown, yet we expect nothing less from our Chief Executives.

I thought about this as I stumbled upon this StarzFilms documentary made in 2004.  Decisions that Shook the World discusses three Presidents who reached a moment of action.  First, Lyndon Johnson, an accidental President thanks to a tragic assassination in 1963, makes a decision to support a Civil Rights bill, even though it meant alienating most of his white Southern base of support. 

Second, Ronald Reagan steadfastly supported a “Star Wars”-like missile defensive program called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), even when a Democratic Congress howled at the expense and pundits rolled their eyes at the folly of such a “fantastic” program.

Lastly, Franklin Roosevelt, in the midst of an economic depression in his own country, decides to provide Great Britain with arms and materials before our entry into World War II.  This was at a time when many Americans thought the United States should maintain its neutrality from what seemed to be a mostly European affair.

In each instance, the consequences were felt long after the decision was made.  Johnson, as it turned out, made the right decision on civil rights–albeit the wrong one when it came to Vietnam.  Reagan’s solid approach to anti-Communism helped ensure that the Cold War would end.  However, “Star Wars” opened up the floodgates for massive spending from the Pentagon that we still cannot control.  Roosevelt’s actions kept Britain going until we did enter the war.  Yet the war we initially entered was in the Pacific, with the European war, in the beginning, as an afterthought.

The documentary works well as an episodic series to use piecemeal in classrooms.  It works well with creating “case study” scenarios where students can make executive decisions using the same information available at the White House at the time. 

Finally, I hope the film will get students to appreciate the extraordinarily difficult position that the President has.  He has the toughest job in the world, and it gets harder with every passing administration.

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The Battle for the Textbook: Texas rewrites its social studies

I get a lot of use from my textbook. 

Whenever my LCD projector’s a bit too low, two or three Grade 4 texts oughta do the trick.

That is the extent to which I use these relics. 

The Information Age of the 21st Century has effectively rendered a textbook obsolete.  As soon as established theories and truths are set in paper before yawning students (who sign the inside cover along with drawings of the male member) alternate discoveries and revisions make them outdated even before they come to press. 

In spite of this, many districts across America continue with the hard-bound behemoths of our youth, and with good reason.  At least in math and science, they provide solid resources that can be preserved year after year.  On paper, this means saving on mountains of copying worksheets and more time copying useless memos.

Yet the composition of textbooks is a thorny issue, especially when it comes to social studies.  Deven Black recently sent me an article from the Texas Tribune entitled “Hijacking History.”  It details the sausage-like process of establishing standards, solidifying content and even copyediting of a state textbook for social studies. 

Texas’ education system is fairly unified in that the entire state uses the same set of textbooks.  It’s a huge state, so the publishers kill their own young to get the contract.  What goes into the textbooks, however, can often become a political tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, as evidenced in the article.  This has tremendous implications for the classroom, as the struggle at the board level affects what is read in on the page.

Essentially, “Hijacking History” is about this left-right struggle, and how it affect s the whole process.  Take Joe McCarthy, for example.  Bill Ames, a conservative activist and member of one of the State Board of Education’s curriculum-writing committees, fights to “rectify” McCarthy’s legacy by including information about actual Communist infiltration in the US government. 

When it comes to including minority acheivements, the infighting can get downright petty.  Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, for example, were supposed to allow space equally to Barry Goldwater and Billy Graham.  So Justice Marshall, who argued before the Supreme Court in 1954 to end segregation in public schools, has to share his shelf with a southern preacher who claims “voices” speak to him.

Look, even as a conservative, I don’t buy these arguments.  Yes, I know about the Communist infiltration.  McCarthy’s paranoia was somewhat justified–somewhat.  However, if in laying down wood a few planks must fall, then McCarthy let some real two-by-fours fly.  In the grand scheme of things, he did a lot of harm along with his good intentions. 

Don’t get me started on Billy Graham, it’s a no-brainer: Thurgood Marshall wins by a mile.

What amazes me, however, is the push for “American Exceptionalism.”  We’re going to tell students not only that the United States is the greatest, but also that it is immune to the heaves and throes of world history.  According to some really out-there right wing wierdos, the US, by divine design, cannot topple like the  empires of old.  A thousand year “reich”, perhaps? 

America will endure forever–Jesus said so.  And I know because he spoke to me in Dixie-accented English, just like he did in the Bible. 

What a crime.  What’s a bigger crime is that these inane arguments will somehow end up in a textbook that will be taken as gospel by thousands of educators too lazy to offer a dissenting viewpoint.

The lesson is clear: building a textbook, or a curriculum, is never easy.  You always end up pissing off somebody–believe me, I know.  The balance of ideas and viewpoints is important.  It is also important to include the voices of those Americans who have long been silent, either by force or by neglect.

  Be careful, though…there is such a thing as TOO fair.  Don’t let the facts get buried in the need for political compromise. 

 If you insist on using a textbook, please PLEASE understand that it isn’t Biblical truth.  Even the Bible isn’t biblical truth, for that matter, but I’ve pissed off the evangelicals enough for one night.  Always try to stress alternative viewpoints, especially if they do not necessarily mesh with your own.

If all else fails, use a textbook for what they’re best at–as a  paperweight.

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