‘Satan’s Coming!’: Why We Need to Teach Civics Again

Jenny Hale Pulsipher

“The Third-term Panic. ‘An ass, having put on the lion’s skin, turned about in the forest, and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met in his wanderings’ – Shakespeare or Bacon,” by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, v. 18 no. 932 (Nov. 7, 1874), 912. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Our SHEAR panel on teaching the early republic, in both conception and content, arose from the political moment we find ourselves in, one of rancorous divisions between the red and blue sections of the country and the displacement of a once-thriving professional press corps by social media and talk shows. My own pedagogical response to this moment has been to weave two themes into my teaching of the early republic: informed citizenship and civility.

Some background first: My early republic teaching comes in a class outside the history department—a stand-alone civics course that is a general education requirement for almost every student at Brigham Young University. This interdisciplinary course draws content from history, political science, and economics, and faculty from each discipline take turns teaching it, but the core of the course is the development of American constitutional government. Because the class is taught to very large groups of students—up to 700 at a time—we use a lot of media to engage them, and that media mostly comes in the form of news clips about current national and world issues. These clips provide opportunities for students to apply what they have learned about the structure and function of U.S. constitutional government to contemporary politics. For instance, during the early 2016 crisis over the prohibition of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, we discussed federal court rulings striking down the ban as examples of constitutional checks and balances, and we debated whether the ban was a violation of provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Even at BYU, where the vast majority of students and faculty are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which polls 69 percent Republican or Republican-leaning,1 students held widely divergent views on these and other political topics. I know, because I polled them every class period, using an iClicker to graph their anonymous responses to questions on screen.  Because I wanted students to critically examine where their opinions on current issues came from, one of the first questions I polled them about was where they got their news. Here is the result:

1) Social media (30 percent)

2) Traditional news programs (5 percent)

3) Talk shows (47 percent)

4) Newspapers (8 percent)

5) Other (10 percent)

Only 13 percent of students got their news from the print and television sources that have traditionally adhered to professional journalism’s standards of balanced, evidence-based reporting.2 From 77 percent to 88 percent of students got their news from social media, talk shows, or “other.” These are alarming statistics, particularly given the fact that social media was used to spread false stories, sow division, and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions during the 2016 presidential election. Clearly, students need to know how to evaluate online information; they need to be “digitally literate.”

“Congressional Pugilists,” Library of Congress

“Congressional Pugilists,” a portrayal of a fight on the floor of Congress between Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut, 1798. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Institutional efforts to teach digital literacy as a key component of civics education are in their infancy, but if our home colleges and universities lack institutional support to foster digital literacy, we can do it ourselves, using tools freely available online, published materials, and our own knowledge and experience. I’ve used the Stanford History Education Group’s Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, which includes materials that test students’ ability to evaluate online information.3 I’ve also found Daniel Levitin’s A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics helpful.4 Increasingly, articles appearing in mainstream publications point out some of the basics of critical online reading, such as being suspicious of information that provokes strong emotion.5

As historians, we can provide our students with the perspective to respond rationally to today’s emotional, suspicious, dismissive, and divisive political climate. For starters, we can point out that, whatever the media may say, our divisive political climate is not unprecedented. To underline this point, I like to play John Quincy Adams’s 1828 campaign song, “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming,” which contains these startling words: “Fire’s coming, swords are coming, pistols, guns and knives are coming, fears are coming, tears are coming, plague and pestilence is coming, hating’s coming, Satan’s coming, if John Quincy not be coming! ” Partisan newspapers, the norm in the early nineteenth century, encouraged such extreme and alarmist thinking. Social media encourages such thinking now, with its algorithms designed to give people more and more of what they “like” and nothing that they don’t. But it is worth reminding students that, just as today’s divisive politics have historical precedent, there is also historical precedent for more cooperative, bipartisan political climates.

In order to counter the kind of divisive stereotyping that fuels incivility, I borrowed an assignment from Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.6 I assigned each of my students to select a political commentator from a mainstream news source who was on the other side of the political spectrum from themselves, read one of their opinion pieces each week, and write a short response. Student responses were not graded but made up most of their participation points. Based on end-of-semester evaluations, many students found this an uncomfortable but ultimately worthwhile experience. For some, confronting rational arguments from across the political spectrum led them to examine and sometimes change their own political opinions. For others, it enabled them to recognize that people with radically different political opinions could still be reasonable, well-intentioned human beings.

Preparing students for their future roles in society—including their roles as citizens—has traditionally been considered a responsibility of the Academy, but one that has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. I confess that teaching “civics,” with its overtones of boosterism, makes me squirm a bit too, but I’m getting over it. The early republic has a lot to offer today’s students about the development of U.S. constitutional government, the none-too-polite debates over power and politics that accompanied it, and its relevance to our modern political battleground. Helping students navigate the digital news stream and engage in an informed and rational way with current political debates while they learn about the formative years of U.S. history strikes me as an appropriate response to my university’s motto: “enter to learn, go forth to serve.”


1 A recent poll reports LDS political party affiliation as 48 percent registered Republican, 35 percent independent, and 13 percent registered Democrat (Jana Reiss, “Mormons are less Republican this year, and Trump is not the only reason why,” Religion News Service, https://religionnews.com/2016/09/15/mormons-are-less-republican-this-year-pew-study-finds/). Jana Reiss, who created “The Next Mormons Survey” (2016) has reported that Mormons aged 18‒36 are more politically balanced than older Mormons: 46 percent registered GOP, 41 percent registered Democratic, 13 percent Independent (https://religionnews.com/2017/05/24/10-things-to-know-about-millennial-mormons/).

2 Of course, not all news outlets adhere to these standards. A 2012 survey reported that “people who watch no news at all can answer more questions about international current events than people who watch cable news“ (“Survey: NPR’s listeners best-informed, Fox viewers worst-informed,” https://www.poynter.org/news/survey-nprs-listeners-best-informed-fox-viewers-worst-informed).

3 https://stacks.stanford.edu/file/druid:fv751yt5934/SHEG%20Evaluating%20Information%20Online.pdf

4 Daniel Levitin, A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics: A Neuroscientist on How to Make Sense of a Complex World (New York, 2018). For extensive discussion of the need for college-level civics education, long dismissed as old-fashioned and a bit embarrassing, see The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement’s A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/crucible/Crucible_508F.pdf

5 https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/10/31/559571970/learning-to-spot-fake-news-start-with-a-gut-check

6 In Robert Bradford, “The High Ground,” USC Trojan (Autumn 2016) https://tfm.usc.edu/how-did-american-politics-lose-its-civility-usc-experts-weigh-in/

5 December 2018

About the Author

Jenny Hale Pulsipher is Assistant Professor of History at Brigham Young University.

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