The Kavanaugh Hearings: Let Questions Turn Chaos into Opportunity


The Kavanaugh hearings have rocked the country.  The Supreme Court, that one place where politics is supposed to be off limits, has succumbed to partisanship. We are a government flirting with chaos.

In these times it’s useful to take a step back and remember some age-old wisdom by the great Chinese philosopher and military strategist Sun Tzu:

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.”  Sun Tzu

And that opportunity comes to AP government teachers in the form of big questions…

A few weeks ago I shared a post on how to use the big questions from the AP government redesign as an anchor for student engagement with course content.

This week I’m having students confront these questions for the forth time this year in light of what they have learned from a current event. The fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination is an ideal event to inspire another look at the questions.

Here’s the procedure:

1. Students access their personalized Google doc containing all of the questions.

2. I say:

“Consider the Kavanaugh hearings.  Decide how these big questions can be answered by what you learned. Not all questions will be addressed. Answer as many as you can. Make your connections explicit.”

3. As they work, sit in front class and call students up randomly to ask what they are thinking about.

Below is my brainstorming on some connections which (I hope!) the students will catch.Christine_Blasey_Ford_swearing_in

Category:  Foundations of American Democracy

How have theory, debate, and compromise influenced the U.S. Constitutional system?

My Brainstorm: We talked about the judiciary being a different branch of government, one that is not as susceptible to the whims of public opinion. Many who criticized Kavanaugh used the argument that he wasn’t acting like an independent judge and that he showed too much partisanship in his answers. This observation reinforces the unique role Supreme Court judges are to have within our Constitutional system.

Category: Interaction Among Branches of Government

How do the branches of the national government compete and cooperate in order to govern?

My Brainstorm: We spent a good deal of time on the Senate’s responsibility to provide ‘advice and consent’ and how this power competes with the president’s power to nominate judges. The idea is that the Senate is supposed to provide a reasoned, national perspective on the president’s selection. This is a great opportunity for students to solidify their understanding of checks and balances.

To what extent have changes in the powers of each branch affected how responsive and accountable the national government is in the 21st century?

My Brainstorm:  Here’s where I’d hope the students would recognize that the Senate usually approaches its ‘advice and consent’ role for judges in a less partisan way (though not recently). The nature of ‘advice and consent’ is clearly changing– the open question is whether these changes are making the government more or less responsive and accountable. This is a discussion in and of itself!

Category: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

How have U.S. Supreme Court rulings defined civil liberties and civil rights?

My Brainstorm:  We’ve considered the Roe v. Wade decision and contemplated what the world may look like if Kavanaugh were confirmed and he were the deciding vote to overturn that decision. Kavanaugh’s confirmation provides a great example of how the make-up of the court shapes the definition of which civil liberties and rights are deserving of federal protection.

Category:  American Political Ideologies and Beliefs

How do political ideology and core values influence government policy making?

My Brainstorm:  The Senate Judiciary Committee was raw partisanship at its best (and worst!). Conservative Republicans versus liberal Democrats engaged in partisan battle over the direction of the Supreme Court.

Category:  Political Participation

How effective are the various methods of political participation in sharing public policies?

My Brainstorm: It will be interesting to see how the students decide whether Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was effective or ineffective in terms of deciding the fate of Kavanaugh and thus the future policy-making of the Court. All agreed that her testimony was very powerful.  Was she at a distinct disadvantage against a political elite?

I plan to give the students a good 20 minutes at least to engage with these questions. Then we can discuss as a class. This is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic so I know I’ll have to be very diligent in keeping it focused on the connections with government concepts.

Yes, I am committing valuable class time to this– but remember, we aren’t JUST learning about one thing; we are actually integrating knowledge about many different areas of government using a powerful current event and big questions to lead the way.

It’s worth it!

Big Questions in Action

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