“So, we’re going to pretend that you guys are the House Judiciary Committee,” Brown said after her students finished studying the cases. “Are you pushing forward these articles of impeachment to the House?”
This is precisely the question the real House Judiciary Committee is weighing. Brown joins educators throughout the country who are seizing on this moment to teach their students about impeachment, the rule of law, checks and balances and leadership, connecting textbook lessons about government to events chronicled in newspapers and on television.
It is only the fourth time in our nation’s 243-year history that a president has faced an impeachment inquiry. Only two — Clinton and Johnson — have been impeached. The current impeachment inquiry was prompted by a whistleblower complaint that alleged Trump used his position to push a foreign government to do something that would help his reelection. A large part of the inquiry has centered on a July 25 call between Trump and the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asks for “a favor.”
The impeachment inquiry, and Trump’s tumultuous tenure, will undoubtedly shape how young people view government and the political process, much like the Vietnam War spurred a renewed skepticism of authority among young people who lived through that era. Educators see an opportunity to help these students — many of whom will cast their first ballots in 2020 — digest what’s happening.
Wilson High School senior Rachelle Yombo said the events of the last three years have raised her ire, and her sense of injustice.
“Honestly, it seems to be — and it sounds childish — not fair,” Yombo said. She said she has been disheartened to see the president and his administration employ what she views as racist and homophobic rhetoric — like the time the president derided immigrants from Haiti and nations in Africa, referring to their homelands in a derogatory way. Her father is from Central African Republic.
The last three years, she said, have made her see the flaws in our political system. It has also inspired her to pursue a career in government — she wants to work at the Education Department — to right wrongs from the inside.
“It definitely has accelerated my desire to get involved,” she said.
For social studies educators, the stakes are high. In their view, they are not only teaching about history and government, they are also preparing the next generation of voters and citizens. They view their role — and this education — as safeguarding democracy. They want to make sure students are able to transcend the spin and make their own judgments.
“Being able to study [government] in an environment that is committed to objectivity and getting the facts straight is essential to citizenry,” said Kevin C. Walsh, president of the John Marshall Foundation, which trains teachers to deliver lessons on the U.S. Constitution. “When we look out and we see the battling forces that are trying to enlist the Constitution on their side, it wakes us up to the need for people to be educated.”
In a classroom in Powhatan County, Va., outside Richmond, students dissected aspects of impeachment — the process, the relevant passage in the Constitution, an excerpt from the Federalist Papers — in a classroom whose walls were lined with a timeline of U.S. history and posters and portraits of historical figures, including Alexander Hamilton and President John F. Kennedy. Teacher Greg Ownby, who works with the John Marshall Foundation to prepare lesson plans for teachers, has been thrilled to use the news to teach his students about what’s happening.
In this county, where more than 70 percent of voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2016, the impeachment inquiry has been contentious. Classrooms may be one of the few remaining places where people with divergent political views are engaging in productive, civil dialogue, approaching the topic with an open mind and asking honest questions. At Powhatan High School, where social groups fall along the normal fault lines, students maintain friendships on either side of the political divide.
Classrooms “are the safe spaces for them to be able to speak their opinions as long as they’re doing it respectfully,” Ownby said. “If you can get them engaged, you have to capitalize on that.”
Dakota Howie is a high school senior who leans conservative politically. He has been involved in local activism, signing a petition against a new subdivision that would have destroyed a local wetland. And although he backs Trump, he said he believes the president should be held accountable if he broke the law. It’s just that Howie doesn’t trust Congress to do the job and believes voters should be able to impeach the president through a recall process.
“I don’t think it should be up to the political parties,” Howie said during a class discussion. “In my view, if anybody should impeach the president, it should be the people who elected him.”
Government teachers are facing tougher, more delicate questions than usual. As Ownby walked through the ways in which Congress can impeach the president, he posed what he thought was a rhetorical question, meant to help students understand the concept of treason: “Has President Trump waged war against the United States? Has he given aid or comfort to an enemy fighting the United States?”
Keona Barnwell, a senior in the ROTC who is bound for the Georgia Military Institute, jumped in: “Well, when he stopped giving aid to Kurdistan, he technically did. Because when we stopped giving aid to them, ISIS leaders stepped up,” she said, referring to the acronym for the Islamic State militant group.
“All right, all right,” Ownby replied. “This is tough stuff!”
Barnwell went on to deliver an explanation of bribery and quid pro quo — “Like if someone says, ‘If you vote this way, I’ll give you X amount of money,’ ” she said.
A classmate, Will Ludeke, interrupted: “Isn’t that, like, already a thing with politics?”
Back in the District, it only took a brief discussion of the Clinton impeachment for the conversation to drift into unsuitable territory.
“Is there a legal definition of sex?” one student asked.
“Hmm,” Brown, the teacher, said. “I don’t know.”
At the end, the students weighed in. President Johnson: impeached. President Nixon: impeached. President Clinton: impeached.
For Trump, the teacher instead had students predict what might happen. What would they, the students, impeach him for? And did they believe the House would do the same?
Abuse of power, suggested one student. Bribery, suggested another. “Can he be impeached for being racist?” asked another.
Their prediction? Impeached.