Teaching Political Science in the Tea Party Age

In recent weeks, I have been discussing the government shutdown and potential debt crisis in my classes. Most students really did not seem to be following the stories until the government partially closed. Then I got a number of questions about what parts of government were closed and the issues causing Republicans and Democrats to disagree. The discussion about what parts of government closed was straightforward. The discussion about the causes of the current crises was not.

As the October 1 government funding deadline approached, I brought up the Affordable Care Act (ACA) as the issue driving many Republicans’ decision unwillingness to pass a “clean” continuing resolution keeping government funding in place. Some students did not understand the basics of the ACA, so I set out to explain the basic issues, including the mandate that Americans have health insurance. Several students immediately responded that this was “socialized medicine” and a “government takeover” of health.

I tried to explain how the system was a combination of Medicaid and private insurance companies providing coverage to most of the uninsured. The same students shook their heads during my explanation and, after I finished, told me I was wrong and that government was taking over the entire medical system. After about 20 minutes of talking to the students about how private insurance companies were competing for business through the exchanges, I realized that I was making no headway with those students who refused to believe that the ACA was not socialized medicine. As an assignment, I asked them to write a short paper comparing the American health system under the ACA and the health system in Great Britain. I will be interested to see their work.

Later in the same class, a student asked me to characterize President Obama’s political ideology, since we were talking about political philosophy. Using the Pew Center’s typology (Pew Center, 2011), I responded to the question stating that I though the president was a New Coalition Democrat, a centrist belief system. I explained my observation by noting how some of Obama’s ideas, like supporting gay marriage, were clearly liberal, but some of his ideas, especially in pursuing the war on terrorism (e.g., use of drones in South Asia and curbing civil liberties in this country) were more conservative. I then characterized the ACA as a Republican idea from the Nixon administration, providing a link to white papers from the Nixon administration. This discussion produced a heated response from the same students who objected to my characterization of the ACA as something other than “socialized medicine.” The students told me that I was wrong and that President Obama was a socialist and the most liberal president in American history.

After the ACA discussion, I realized that trying to reason with these students was not going to go well. I asked the students to compare President Obama’s policy record with that of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson to determine which president was more liberal. I realize that using the Socratic method is not always effective, but I wanted the students to use critical thinking. This experiment did not go well either, as the students not only refused to accept that President Obama was not a socialist or even the most liberal president ever, but they refused to even engage in a direct comparison of the records of Obama, Roosevelt, and Johnson.

When I was in college, I was taught that critical thinking was using the best available evidence to make the strongest arguments about an issue. I had conservative professors in the UVA economics and government departments teach that method, as well as liberal professors in English and rhetoric. Thirty years after being taught that critical thinking is an intellectual way of thinking, the idea of critical thinking itself has become politicized. The Texas Board of Education has attempted to remove critical thinking from textbooks used in school and from the K-12 curriculum. Conservative organizations like the John William Pope Center for Higher Education post articles attacking critical thinking (http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2828) by creating straw arguments about how individual instructors use critical thinking to attack the American economic and political systems.

The lack of fundamental critical thinking skills is evident in today’s political culture. The act of denying facts or other forms of evidence in debates over global warming, hydraulic fracturing, or the impact of the United States having a diminished credit rating points to how the classic understanding of critical thinking has all but disappeared. In the Tea Party age, in which critical thinking or argumentation, is not valued or even dismissed, those of use who teach are entering a new era. When students fail to engage in intellectual debate and dismiss their professors as just wrong, I am left to wonder how we can transform today’s dysfunctional political culture when tomorrow’s leaders as deniers-in-training.

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