US Government Study Requires Conflict Examination – The Virginian-Pilot


The Williamsburg-James City County School Board’s April 19 decision to cancel the purchase of new textbooks for the district’s Government and Advanced Placement Policy classes no doubt surprised many. The money had already been allocated and the current texts are at least 12 years old. My interest in this subject is not just that of a resident of Williamsburg.

Every semester for over 40 years, I taught Introduction to American Government at the college where I was employed. I am also the co-author of such a text, and I have spent my career teaching, researching and writing about American politics. The rejected book, “Government in America: People, Politics and Policy,” is co-authored by three prominent political scientists, two of whom are acquaintances of mine.

How could their book, I wondered, be deemed objectionable, especially since the content of these texts offers standard treatment? This book, like the one I co-authored, examines its subject matter in this way: the founding period, the Constitution, civil rights and liberties, political behavior, governmental institutions, and policy-making. Since high school AP courses are designed to prepare students for college-level teaching and pedagogy, the book was an excellent choice.

The backdrop to this local decision is an ongoing national culture war involving the public school curriculum where, unfortunately, outrage is high and factual analysis weak. The extreme case is that of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Attracting national attention, he signed a law banning the teaching of “critical race theory” – even if it is not taught in public schools, nor “cultivates black communism” or “teaches children to either hate our country or hate each other,’” as DeSantis falsely claimed.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order calling for an end to “inherently divisive concepts, including critical race theory” in public schools. Principals across the state pushed back against the governor’s insistence that “intrinsically divisive concepts” be somehow eliminated from schools.




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Here’s the thing: it’s not possible to meaningfully teach American government without teaching the divisions of the country. Politics is about how political systems deal with the struggle between division and unity.

This dilemma was brilliantly analyzed by founder James Madison when he wrote in the Federalist Papers about “faction,” his term for a group of people brought together by a “common impetus of passion” who are “opposed to the rights of others citizens” or to the “overall interests of the community”. In other words, factions embody division to further their cause.

Madison lamented that factions were dangerous to the political system, but knew they couldn’t be banned, an effort he called “madness,” any more than their discussion could be – which are DeSantis and Youngkin. There are, he writes, “two methods of curing factional misdeeds. …remove its causes” or “control its effects”.

The first remedy would be “worse than the disease”. It would be like eliminating the air, essential to life, to stop the fire: “Freedom is to faction what air is to fire. Madison’s alternative remedy is to control their ill effects through constitutional structures and protections. This would surely extend, as it should, to instructing not just the good, but also the bad and the ugly woven into the American political system.

One of four people who spoke out against the rejected US government handbook at the board meeting objected to the book’s cover photo of a mass Black Lives Matter protest outside the US Capitol . The speaker reportedly called the photo “divisive”. We are tempted to reply, welcome to American politics.

Madison would have understood the dismay, but he would have lamented the remedy. Division cannot be eliminated. It’s in America’s DNA; fortunately, however, this is only part of who we are. But that is why it must be taught.

Robert J. Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at SUNY Cortland and co-author of “We the People: Essentials Edition.” He lives in Williamsburg.


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