In these polarizing political times, teaching high school civics might be one of the toughest jobs.
Mark Miller makes it look easy – stimulating and constructive, too, even when the subject turns to impeachment or abortion.
In his U.S. government and politics class at Shadle Park High School, there are no angry fists – only raised arms seeking understanding in an age of informational overload and seemingly hidden agendas behind every headline.
If nothing else, Miller’s students can agree to disagree.
During a recent discussion of U.S. Supreme Court cases, senior Joseph Broadhurst confessed to having “a hard time understanding how anyone could decide it any other way than this.”
“Then, as I read them, I thought, ‘Hey, that’s a valid opinion,’” Broadhurst said. “And I talk with the other kids to at least listen to what they have to say.”
This week the subject turned to Roe. v. Wade, the landmark case that evokes red-hot emotions over abortion.
But instead of raising their voices, the students raised questions – the kind that showed they’d done their homework.
Soon the discussion centered on the judicial concept of originalism, which asserts that all statements in the Constitution must be interpreted based on the original understanding of the authors or the people at the time it was ratified.
On Tuesday, Miller’s class watched an interview in which former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – the face of originalism until his death in 2016 – offered his opinion.
The students in this Advanced Placement class took it from there, offering their own observations as they delved into Roe v. Wade, an exercise in peeling the onion layers and getting to underlying issues such as privacy.
A teacher for 25 years, Miller has done this many times before – most recently during ongoing discussions over the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
The ultimate compliment came from Asher Sterling, who took the class partly for the AP credits but soon discovered that “there was a lot I didn’t know about government.”
Regardless of the topic, Sterling marveled at Miller’s ability to lead discussions of historical and current issues with a combination of passion and nonpartisanship.
It also doesn’t hurt to play devil’s advocate, thereby challenging students to back up their positions.
“I think he argues from standpoints he doesn’t necessarily believe in and makes us think,” Sterling said.
Critical thinking is challenged, Miller believes, by a national shortage of unbiased media – a problem that predates Trump.
A few years ago, Miller recalls, he assigned students to get some definitive answers on the Affordable Care Act. Apart from public relations efforts by medical professionals and the insurance industry, there was little.
The problem is getting worse, Miller’s students agreed on Tuesday as they look ahead to voting for the first time in their lives.
“It’s hard,” said senior Jarred McDougall, who understands that a newsfeed on Facebook might be biased.
“I just have to read it and understand that it’s from a particular source and that parts may be true but not the whole thing,” McDougall said. “Also that everyone has a purpose in writing.”
For Miller, there’s plenty of blame to go around for what has become an exhausting search for the truth.
“I tell them jokes about Walter Cronkite turning over in his grave,” said Miller, who also said he thinks that “the role of the media in reporting on Vietnam was the beginning of position-oriented journalism.”
More recently, Miller believes, the New York Times “has in certain instances done themselves in” with coverage of national politics. Trump’s “over-the-top” communication style hasn’t helped either, he said.
Neither has Twitter, said Miller. “There’s a fairly significant population for which that’s their news source … but things that look fairly factual on a Twitter feed has so much potential for bias.”
“Basically, I tell them to be constantly skeptical of what they’re looking at,” Miller said.
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