Teachable moments in the Impeachment Inquiry

Fernando M. Reimers

It is important for students to see that what they learn in school helps them make sense of the world outside of school; this applies to a range of areas, whether it is understanding trade and economics, understanding science and technology, or understanding government and social studies.

An impeachment process is an important safeguard of American democracy, a constitutional protection against abuses of power, it is one of the forms in which Congress exercises its role of keeping the presidency in check. Because there have only been three impeachment processes in US history, the current impeachment proceedings are a rare event, the social studies equivalent of a solar eclipse –more rare than a solar eclipse, in fact — so discussing the impeachment process is a good opportunity to teach students about the workings of our democracy, and teaching about it is essential if students are to believe that what they learn in school is going to help them understand the world in which they live.

Studying how the articles of impeachment have been used in the past, and comparing them to how they are used today, is a way for students to understand how various generations defined abuses of Presidential power. None of the three impeachments that progressed furthest resulted in the removal of a President: the House of representatives voted to impeach Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, who were then acquited by the senate, whereas President Nixon resigned before the House voted on the impeachment. In addition to those, formal impeachment resolutions were filed against seven additional Presidents for reasons ranging from declaring war, to corruption and favoritism. Helping students to understand the historical context in which impeachment articles were used in those ten moments to challenge Presidential power is an excellent way to help them appreciate the mechanisms available to a government ‘of the people and for the people’ to keep their elected leaders from abusing their office. Understanding that historical context is essential to make sense of the present impeachment proceedings.

As with any good teaching, teaching about the impeachment should teach students to think about and understand the process, not teach them what they should think about the current impeachment process or its outcome. It should develop their ability to understand and think critically about the process, not indoctrinate them into a particular set of beliefs about what outcome the current process should achieve. Teaching students about this process should also help them recognize that there are different beliefs that inform how different people in American society think about the current inquiry. It is important to teach students to recognize the facts about the process, and to understand it, while also teaching them to respectful of the various emotions and partisan views through which people see the inquiry. One of the most important skills schools can teach students is the skill to listen and try to understand those who see the world differently than they do, to teach them to try to see the world through the eyes of another person. That capacity for empathy is essential to the functioning of our democracy, it is the foundation that allows us to come together, find common ground and collaborate with those we disagree in some respects. Surveys of public opinion, such as the recent Pew Research Center Survey on views about the impeachment are a good resource to help students understand how people of different political persuasions view the impeachment.

It is, of course, important to teach all students how essential process is to sustaining a society ruled by laws. This is what we mean by ‘fairness’. It is trust in a ‘fair’ process that allows us to in the end have trust in each other.

In short, schools should be teaching about the ongoing impeachment inquiry, but they should do it thoughtfully. To do this well teachers need time to plan those lessons, educate themselves on the history of the use of articles of impeachment, access the best resources to support deep learning on the part of students, that makes them sophisticated thinkers who understand nuance and who can discern the fundamentals of our process from the details of our partisan politics.

Good resources to teach about current affairs, including about the impeachment process, are available on the website of the organization Facing History and Ourselves, an organization committed to supporting the teaching of history so students can stand up to bigotry

https://facingtoday.facinghistory.org/teaching-impeachment-amid-polarization

Teachers need also the opportunity to discuss with colleagues and with their principals that they are planning to teach about the impeachment, to exchange ideas, and ensure their principals are informed about and will support what they do.

The impeachment inquiry provides in short an important teachable moment about current affairs with deep historical significance. Addressing this moment well calls for the highest level of professionalism on the part of our teachers and principals.

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Fernando M. Reimers

Expert in Global Education, researching and teaching how to educate children and youth so they can thrive in complex and fluid times.