45, American Mythology, American Racism, Civic Education, Critical Thinking, Edutainment, High School Students, Hypocrisy, Independent Thinking, Jay Wickliff, Meritocracy, Political Corruption, Presidential Classroom
In all of my professional work experiences, I’ve had two stints outside of academia and more traditional nonprofit settings in which I worked with high school students. One was during my two summers as a consultant with the Junior Statesmen Foundation, where I co-taught and co-prepared an accelerated version of AP US History for students attending the JSA summer program that Princeton University hosted, in 2008 and 2009. I loved those summers with those students, even though it meant not seeing my family for a few weeks at a time.
The other one was during my time as Director of Curriculum for Presidential Classroom. Presidential Classroom, by the way, was never affiliated with the White House. Nor was it an actual classroom. From 1968 to 2011, it was a civic education program that made money by getting schools and parents to cough off dollars to send their high school kids to Washington, DC for a week. Presidential Classroom’s purpose was for students to learn about how the center of American power works from an up-close-and-personal perspective, to serve as a possible way to inspire teenagers to take up public service as adults. It was so influenced by the exaggerated sense Baby Boomers had of themselves and of their activism that was “the ’60s.”
Except that by the time I came on board as a staff person, those lofty purposes were no longer Presidential Classroom’s raison d’être. Like any small nonprofit, it was trying to make more money and compete successfully in a crowded market. Close Up had caught up with and surpassed the organization ten years before I accepted the position. As my one-time boss reminded our staff of twelve continuously, Close Up cleared 20,000 students through their programs in DC every year, while Presidential Classroom struggled to attract 4,000 students in its programs. The board of directors had decided a few years before my time at Presidential Classroom that the organization’s programming had to be more entertaining, and not just about being on Capitol Hill or asking undersecretaries of state and education cogent policy questions.
Across two summer cycles and one winter/spring cycle between June 1999 and December 2000, I worked with high school juniors and seniors as part of what I called “edutainment.” I held up the education end. One of my main jobs before groups of 300-400 students arrived for their week of civic education was to revise the organization’s resource book Outlook. It was my job to cover the various ideological and policy topics of the day using primary and secondary sources in the resource book. Even though the organization only expected me to cover two sides to any policy-based issue or political perspective, I knew that this was too simplistic. I often had three points of view for each topic in the resource book.
It was all to make sure that when the high school students got together to debate each other on immigration reform, reproductive rights, affirmative action, or climate change, they didn’t sound like they just quoted Jack Van Impe or Jimmy Swaggart. It was supposed to help them ask well-thought out questions when meeting with representatives and senators, or during a Q-and-A session with a cabinet member, senior Pentagon official, or an editor from The Washington Post or USA Today.
Unfortunately, what little bit of learning students gained during their week in DC translated into a confirmation of their existing ideas about American politics and civic engagement. Plus, it didn’t help that I was working for Presidential Classroom at the end of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment debacle and throughout the 2000 Presidential Election cycle. Arguments about the articles of impeachment turned into whether Monica Lewinsky seduced Clinton or whether the president used his power to obtain sexual favors from a then-twenty-three year-old intern. Six-year-old Elián González became either a proverbial poster child for “illegals” or a symbol of America’s broken promise as a melting pot. Every White student had a story about their dad or brother being screwed out of a job because of affirmative action, of course without actual evidence.
As for the three branches of government, checks and balances, and the bicameral chamber, or more importantly, the process of how a bill became law, who really cared? The students and some staff were more interested in comedy troupes in Georgetown or attracting more “Orientals” to program than in the distance between how government in DC was supposed to work and the Hill’s sorry-ass reality.
As hard and difficult as that job was at the turn of the twenty-first century, it would be impossible now. There’s absolutely no way I could do that Presidential Classroom job in the era of 45. I couldn’t keep a straight face while discussing meritocracy, the distinctions between the Democratic and Republican parties, or in believing that we were really exposing high school juniors and seniors to how Washington actually works. In order to do a proper debate, each group of high school students we had back then would need the full week to just focus on learning how to debate, forget about meeting folks on the Hill or engaging appointees in Q-and-A sessions. We’d have to take away their smartphones and cut off their access to wi-fi and TV to get them to concentrate. Most of all, how could I, how could any of us, have explained the ascendancy of 45 to the presidency without hundreds of center-right parents calling us for weeks afterward complaining about how often we brought American racism to John and Becky’s attention?
If Presidential Classroom existed in 2017, and I found myself unlucky enough to be its executive director, I would forever refocus it away from Capitol Hill. I would have students meet up with policy analysts and lobbyists from K Street, Northwest and the Massachusetts Avenue corridor between D Street, Northeast (the National Republican Committee and the Heritage Foundation) and 18th Street, Northwest (where the American Enterprise Institute, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Johns Hopkins SAIS are located). I would bring in journalists from across the center-right ideological spectrum. But only after I got the so-called liberal ones to admit that their first duty is to sell a story, not objectivity and certainly not truth, and with that, exposing their center-right perspective.
Most of all, I’d show them the rest of DC. The parts of the area that have gentrified in the past twenty years. The parts of Wards 7 and 8 that have concentrated poverty and the ills that result from it. I would introduce them to the nonprofit and social justice organizations that truly give a shit about neighborhood displacement and homelessness, mass incarceration, and political corruption. In all of this, I would want the students to see not only how DC really works, but what good people who care about civic participation and public service must do to put a dent into this out-of-control, money-drenched machine.