Students in History Class Debate Impeachment (Burch)

Journalist Audra Burch sat in a world history class recently and described history teacher Chris Dier’s lessons on impeachment. The article appeared October 23, 2019. I follow this description of the lesson with some questions that occurred to me.

It was impeachment day in Mr. Dier’s world history class at Chalmette High School. Andrew Johnson, the first impeached president, was on the lesson plan. So was Richard M. Nixon, who avoided facing such a fate by resigning. Bill Clinton, who also was impeached but never convicted, was part of the discussion.

But most of the class was centered on the latest president to face possible removal from office: Donald J. Trump, who is on social media just as much as some of Chris Dier’s students.

At Chalmette High, located in a conservative Louisiana parish, the students in Mr. Dier’s class recently confronted the merits of the case against Mr. Trump, who stands accused of pressuring Ukraine to investigate his chief Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Dier saw the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against Mr. Trump as an opportunity: a real-time lesson in civics and political science for his students.

So, for two 90-minute class periods, Mr. Dier’s seniors pretended to be members of Congress, but without the bluster and sniping — dutifully obeying the signs on the walls about how to respectfully agree to disagree.

“We have never studied anything that was unfolding live,” said Grace Bartholomae, one of the students. “This is history.”

To help his students understand the details of the inquiry, Mr. Dier assembled a bit of a crash-course lesson plan, including an excerpt from the whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s 30-minute phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, along with a reconstructed transcript of the conversation.

The idea was to try to answer the same questions voters are asking themselves about potential impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.

Is Mr. Trump being unfairly cast as corrupt? Has he brazenly weaponized his office for personal gain? Did he seek the aid of a foreign power to interfere in the next election? What are high crimes and misdemeanors anyway?

And is the rarest of constitutional consequences, impeachment by the House and then possible conviction and removal from office by the Senate, worth the trouble a year before the next election — the first in which the students in Mr. Dier’s class, most of whom are 17 years old, will be eligible to vote?

Chalmette High is in St. Bernard Parish just southeast of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River. Surrounded by water and built largely upon fishing and oil refineries, the parish lost more than half of its population after Hurricane Katrina destroyed nearly every home. The rebuilding brought more diversity, and today, of the 1,972 students at Chalmette High, about 52 percent are students of color.

Mr. Trump handily carried the parish in 2016 with about 65 percent of the vote, but the students in Mr. Dier’s class did not always share their parents’ conservative views.

Mr. Dier, 31, teaches in the same classroom where his mother, also a world history teacher, taught five years before. He had planned to tackle impeachment later in the semester, but when the Democrats began an inquiry last month, he moved those lessons up on the calendar to follow a study of the Vietnam War.

He said the point was not just to study this particular impeachment inquiry, but to push his students to engage as informed citizens at a time when many Americans do not understand basic civics.

Only 39 percent of adults can name all three branches of government (a jump from 32 percent last year) and 25 percent can name only one branch, according to a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. This year, congressmen in Florida and Georgia introduced a $30 million bipartisan bill to improve the quality of civics education in elementary, middle and high schools across the country.

Another challenge for teachers, Mr. Dier said, is the fear of being accused of bringing too much politics into the classroom. His has shelves stuffed with books on political science and history, and posters of Ben Franklin, Helen Keller and Malcolm X.

“I think social studies teachers are hesitant to teach controversial topics, past and present, due to hyperpolarization or pushback from parents,” he said. “Almost all of my students will be voting in the next election; they deserve teachers who do not shy away from current events because of our partisan climate.”

If anything, Mr. Dier added, “our partisan climate means students need to be challenged more to learn how to navigate it.”

He figured the best way to explore impeachment in a neutral way was sticking to the Constitution and the established facts of Mr. Trump’s actions. That meant having the students, in a condensed version of the impeachment process, study how the founding fathers framed impeachment and the step-by-step procedures in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Mr. Dier divided the class into four groups and instructed them to read the material they had been given, including the call transcript and the whistle-blower complaint.

The students huddled in separate corners of the room reading aloud. Before long, “bribery,” “treason,” “quid pro quo” and other impeachment watchwords floated above the din of the discussions.

The students did not share the same opinion on the matter. To some, the phone call was a clear violation; others struggled with the degree of wrongness. A handful of students — a number that would grow by the end of the lesson — fully supported Mr. Trump.

“Abuse of power is subjective,” insisted Hunter Wheaton, who questioned whether the country was ready for the ugliness of impeachment, which would require majority support in the House.

Even though she felt impeachment and removal from office was unlikely, Jenna Riess said that the inquiry would reveal what the president had done wrong, and that voters would “use that in the next election and vote for a better candidate.”

After the discussion, Mr. Dier polled the 21 students. This time there were three groups: those who supported impeachment (12), those who did not (four) and those who remained undecided (five).

The undecideds sat quietly in the center of the classroom, and the two opposing groups prepared their strongest arguments.

Chance Beck, speaking for those who supported impeachment, said Mr. Trump’s action set a bad precedent. “It’s not morally or politically correct for a president to be able to use national power or national aid that we give to Ukraine for a personal favor,” he said. “I believe he should be impeached and convicted and removed to make the case that this will not be tolerated.”

Trinity Frey, representing those against impeachment, argued that it was not clear the phone call was inappropriate and that it was unrealistic to expect enough of the real-life Republican senators to support Mr. Trump’s removal.

Though what he did might be considered morally wrong, she said, it was simply not severe enough for him to be taken out of office.

After hearing from both sides, the undecideds had to make their move.

“Centrism is canceled,” cracked Ms. Bartholomae, in the lightest moment of the exercise.

One by one, each of the five students joined one of the two groups, greeted by cheers.

Three of the five joined the anti-impeachment group. They said the stakes were too high and the evidence was too thin. “Show me where this says it’s illegal,” said Jihad Thabata, who questioned whether the call amounted to misconduct.

In a closing statement about whether Mr. Trump should stay in office, Alexis Resendez coolly argued that members of Congress should respect the choice made by voters in the 2016 election.

Ayla Hoey rebutted that the transcript may seem subtle, but Mr. Trump “knew the power he had over other countries. Even if it seems like Ukraine is not being pushed, he knew what he asked for was going to get done.”

In that final round, a two-thirds majority voted in favor of removing Mr. Trump.

The tally: 14 to 7.

*********************

Some questions that occur to me after reading this article.

*Most history teachers steer clear of controversial subjects especially current issues such as the House impeachment hearings of President Trump. Considering what Chris Dier did in his lessons on impeachment, according to this reporter’s account, were they nonpartisan? If yes, how so. If no, what sections were partisan?

*Should history teachers keep politics out of the classroom?

*Should teachers worry about pushback from parents?

6 Comments

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

6 responses to “Students in History Class Debate Impeachment (Burch)

  1. speduktr

    It looks like Mr. Dier bent over backwards to keep his own opinion out of the exercise and to have the students operate on the facts. To have done otherwise would have opened himself up to criticism from students and parents.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Mr. Dier pursued the neutral position in conducting the lessons. And, yes, had he not, he would, as you suggest,been seen as partisan, an inappropriate role for a teacher. Thanks for the comment.

  2. A high school classroom is the best place to discuss politics if the teacher maintains the position of neutral moderator. It is a much better place than the usual, a pub over a couple beers. The beer usually has a negative effect on the intellectual quality of the discussion.

    Discussing history that is happening now, history that the students can see, instead of what happened 200 years ago, is an great way to get students to invest in their own education. It might wake a few of them up.

  3. Gogo

    It’s totally ridiculous that this world history teacher is is wasting a weeks worth of lessons on the current year’s American impeachment inquiry. Why is this world history teacher focusing on American civics & current event? Is there not enough history in the history of world to expose students to (rhetorical question)? Also, Direr was teaching the kids about the Vietnam War in November, so does that mean he started the learning the history of the world in September in the year 1945 or 1964? The Vietnam War is an American-centric topic too! This makes no sense, our students will no nothing about our past with world history teachers who are obsessed with contemporary American history and politics. If this is how you want to conduct the only globally focused history class most students will take in high school then just become an American civics teacher! This is what most high school studies teacher want to be anyway, and many of those same teacher do it so that they can safely promote their biased American political opinions.

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