Ben Dworkin was going over some of the final details of the syllabubs for his spring semester class Wednesday afternoon when our nation’s Capitol was breached. For the director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, it was an example of the textbook — if not the Constitution — coming to life.
But, if you think it resulted in Dworkin tearing up his lesson plans, think again. The insurrection, he said, will only help to bring to life what he already was planning on teaching.
“It’s always hard to teach ideas,” he said. “You can teach a fact that a student can regurgitate on the test. But, to teach an idea, to teach a concept, is tougher. And I think what the tragedy of what transpired yesterday with the mob — and then the majesty of what later happened when the Congress reconvened to continue its work — showed to the American public and college students is, the ideas upon which our country is based become more relevant when they make more sense.
“Because everyone saw what happens when people forget them.”
Teaching the basics of the Constitution always should be the bedrock of any political science course, Dworkin said.
“You go back to the legal fundamentals, which is the United States Constitution, and the debates that brought it about and the ideas that it created and established for the world,” he said. “And then, you add the aspirational fundamentals, like the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address — the kinds of documents that help explain what we want to be.”
Here’s what you don’t do, Dworkin said: You don’t add your opinion.
In a world that is increasingly split on ideology, Dworkin said sticking to the facts is key.
“These should be fact-based courses,” he said. “Teaching is not about having a forum for my opinion. Teaching is about strengthening an understanding of the process and the fundamentals that give life to politics. And, I think, if you stay focused on that, then students of all stripes will enjoy your class and learn.”
Dworkin has. Some of his former students have campaigned and worked for Republican President Donald Trump; others have done the same for Democrats Hillary Clinton and President-elect Joe Biden. Dworkin said he has worked to create an atmosphere where all sides are welcome and heard.
As long as their views are based on facts.
“You get students from all sides, so you always have this challenge,” he said. “This is a fact-based society. It is what it is. So, if you had a student who came in and said, ‘The world is flat,’ then you have to challenge the student to prove their point. It can’t be about conspiracy theories. We had the same situation after the attacks on 9/11. Professors and teachers need to rely on the facts.
“And if you stay focused on the fundamentals — because they are what breathes oxygen into the political process and the debates — then you’ll be fine.”
At least for this week. One of the reasons Dworkin said he isn’t about to blow up his syllabus is because he knows the situation can blow up again.
“There’s going to be something new in a week — and something else in two weeks,” he said. “And all of that comes from the idea of this brilliant concept that the founders of this country had for representative government.”
The concepts, of course, came under attack this week.
“What’s clear here, based on yesterday’s events and the last few years, is that all of the institutions upon which Americans have relied are much more fragile than we thought,” he said. “The institutions that we thought protected us can be manipulated in ways that lead to disruptive behavior.
“That’s why anybody who teaches public political science or American history has to go back to the legal fundamentals and the aspirational fundamentals to explain what we want to be. And, if you teach those things, then you could teach Republicans and Democrats, progressives and conservatives, and everybody in between, because these ideas are significant and cannot be forgotten.”