Careful Reading of Key Documents Reveals American Principles

September 29, 2021

Careful Reading of Key Documents Reveals American Principles
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Stephanie Kaufman teaches Government to high school seniors at Sturgis High School in South Dakota. Her school district sprawls across an area almost as large as the state of Rhode Island. Some of Kaufman’s students moved into the area when their parents were posted to nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base. Some arrived with parents fleeing California’s high tax rates and investing in rapidly appreciating new housing. Others grew up on ranches so distant that during the week they room with relatives in Sturgis, seeing their families only on weekends. It’s a student body with diverse experiences.

On January 6, 2021, as news of the attack on the Capitol building appeared on students’ and teachers’ iPhones, Kaufman braced herself to deal with students’ questions and comments the following day. If she allowed a free-wheeling discussion, it could turn into a partisan brawl. “Instead, I brought in Lincoln’s Lyceum address,” Kaufman said. “We read a large chunk of the speech, especially Lincoln’s comments on what happens when the rule of law breaks down. That was such an easy way to have a conversation without getting into red vs. blue attack mode.

“But without my Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) from Ashbrook, I would not have been aware the speech existed,” Kaufman added. “I would say that is the most valuable thing about Ashbrook’s MAHG program. I now have the tools; I know where to send students so that they can argue their points of view at a higher level than just their raw feelings.”

Kaufman graduated 27 years ago from South Dakota State University, with a history major and a minor in social studies education. She began teaching high school social studies at a K-12 tribal school on the Pine Ridge Reservation, a job she enjoyed. During her second year there, she thought of seeking a Master’s degree; but at that time, traveling to a summer residential program would have been impossible. “My husband was managing a hotel while I taught during the school year. There was no way I could leave him during the summer to take classes—the summer was our busiest time. Then we had kids.” The family moved to Sturgis where Kaufman took her current job.

“After the kids got older, I thought, ‘better go for a Masters now, while they are still at home to help!’” She won a Madison fellowship that would fund her studies and enrolled in the MAHG program. By then, Ashbrook’s MAHG program offered online courses during the school year. “Our daughters picked up the cooking and have done it ever since,” she says proudly.

“I had no expectation that the work for the degree—the reading and writing load—would be anywhere near as much as it was.” It was certainly more than the Master of Education programs her colleagues had described. “But it was worth every moment. Everything we read, everything we discussed, was applicable to my interests and my teaching.”

Kaufman graduated in summer 2020, with a Chairman’s Award for excellence on her cumulative exam. Her degree qualified her to teach a dual credit course in government, coordinated through Black Hills State University. Her first course, in the 2020-21 school year, drew 25 students. This year she’s teaching 40, along with five sections of regular government.

Because of MAHG study, Kaufman now uses Federalist papers in her dual credit course as she covers each branch of the federal government. “When we study the legislative branch, I give them their pick of  three or four papers to read and analyze in an essay. What important point was Publius trying to make? What does his argument mean to us now? When we study the executive, I do the same thing. When we study the Judicial branch, everyone reads Federalist 78.”

She uses some of these documents, and others from the Founding period, in the regular level high school government course, also. She can take the time for this because her school district has preserved government as a full-credit course—although South Dakota, like and many other states, requires only a half-year course in government for graduation. “I’m certain I wouldn’t have been confident enough to ask a college-level freshman class, or my high school seniors, to dig into so much of the Federalist were it not for MAHG.”

Current events in recent years have caused students to wonder about the rules for presidential impeachment and the purpose of the Electoral College. When questions arise, Kaufman pulls out her copy of Madison’s Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787. “Let’s see how they argued through that provision at the Constitutional Convention,” she tells the class. She hands the Notes to the student who posed the question, asking him to read the relevant passage aloud. Then the class discusses the issues the founders considered. “Now I can find what we need when we need it,” Kaufman says.

Ashbrook’s MAHG program not only gave Kaufman familiarity with primary sources she had never read or heard of; it pushed her to rethink some sources she already knew. “That deleted paragraph of the Declaration—I’d read it many times before and talked about it in classes, always treating it ironically as Jefferson trying to blame King George for slavery. I think it was Dr. Monroe who asked us to carefully consider how the paragraph is worded.” Jefferson doesn’t use the word “slaves;” he speaks of “a distant people” being captured, transported here and sold as property, in violation of their natural rights. Kaufman now asks students to discuss the deleted paragraph in relation to the statement, “all men are created equal.” It gets kids talking; we’ve had some good discussions about that.”

Kaufman herself concludes that Jefferson knew those he held in slavery “were people who had natural rights like everyone else. His actions don’t fit his words, but thank goodness he wrote those words, because Lincoln could pick them up and go forward with them.” Lincoln pushed for the first of a series of Constitutional amendments—the 13th, 14th and 15th— which overrode compromises made with slaveholders and have, through time, brought our social and political life into greater alignment with the principles of the Declaration.

Other trends in our nation’s political development suggest a divergence from the founders’ principles and expectations. “Students see this in the size of the federal bureaucracy and what it now does. After working through the Constitution, they ask, ‘Why is government doing so many things the Constitution does not mention?” Then we talk about the commerce clause,” Kaufman says.

“The Articles of Confederation gave the national government no power to regulate commerce. The Constitution grants a power, but the founders intended it to encourage open trade and the growth of a national economy. They wanted to stop states from levying customs duties against each other. Today, we see a myriad of things that have grown out of the commerce clause. A lot of kids start asking questions when we discuss that clause.” 

Careful study of the Declaration and Constitution are fundamental to Kaufman’s class. Close reading, like that modeled in the MAHG program, drives home these texts’ essential ideas. Then students see more clearly the source of many of our political disagreements. Often, they concern not differences of principle, but violations of principle. “If a Democrat and a Republican are both violating the first amendment right to free speech or free exercise of religion, are you going to be okay with it if it’s your party that’s doing it? If you are, then we’d better take a closer look at what the Constitution says,” Kaufman tells her students. “I try always to point them back to the Constitution.”

Kaufman feels Ashbrook’s MAHG program has made her a much more effective teacher. It has only reinforced her dedication to her mission. “I always tell my students that no matter what field of study or career they enter, they are all citizens with rights and obligations. When they sit next to me on jury duty, or stand next to me at the voting booth (many of them turn 18 during my time with them), their voice counts just as much as mine. My goal is to help them gain the knowledge and skills to be effective citizens now and for the rest of their lives.”