Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Sign Of The Times?

We've just had Exam Two here in US History to 1877. And I'm seeing something that I have not seen hitherto.

My "traditional" essay prompt for this exam --which covers the time period from 1763 to 1814-- calls for students to "[d]escribe the differences between the Jeffersonian Republicans and the Federalists" and to "compare those differences to those that exist between today's Republicans and Democrats." At first blush this should not be a terribly challenging topic, but then again many of my students a) don't study, b) don't pay attention in class and c) don't bother keeping up with the news. Actually, most of them do a passable job with the first part of the question, but not the second --at least until this time around.

Now I am no fool. I realize that like most young Americans, my students overwhelmingly supported the election of B. Obama to the Presidency. And in past semesters, their essays have reflected the mindset of Democratic-leaning supporters, e.g., "today's Republicans are the party of the wealthy elite, just as the Federalists were," and "Jeffersonian Republicans were the party of the 'little guy' like today's Democrats."

Not. This. Time.

I was genuinely shocked to see students talking about "today's Democrats are all about the expanding of power like in health-care reform, while today's Republicans are like yesterday's Republicans in wanting limited government." I've always had one or two Tea Party types among my population, so I have seen this line used before. But the sheer number of essays written by my students --who have to get through an Eric Foner textbook as their main reader!-- that reflect *gasp* skeptical cynicism is enough to make me blink.

It gets better. I'm also seeing essays along the lines of "today's Republicans are strict constructionists, while today's Democrats are firm believers in implied powers" --and I never used to get more than one or two like that a semester! My students are suddenly taking a deeper interest in the Constitution. Why is this??? [NB we do read the entire thing line-by-line in class.]

Now some of you may be a bit "oh they're just mirroring you, Mojo, you big honking fascist!" [I am not a fascist.] Well, I haven't been particularly strident this semester, and I do make an effort to play up the logic and benefits of a loose constructionist position in the name of balance --in short, I haven't changed what I do. It's the students who are changing what they're saying.

And given the demographics that I reach, that's a huge warning sign to those in power at the moment. If you're losing MY students, in the long run you are toast.

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