Thursday, January 8, 2015

Progressivism: Big Ideas for Beginning Your Unit

Brrrr...crazy cold here in Chicago! And schools have been closed, which throws off my schedule. I'm going to try to work on making some shorter posts with the hope of getting more posts out there more quickly. We'll see how that New Year's resolution goes!

How to begin a unit on the Progressive Era?

Described by some as "a mood" rather than an organized movement, the Progressive Era can be rather slippery. There is no specific start or end date. There are many kinds of people from many different groups who are involved, many of whom would vehemently disagree with each issue. Some progressives were concerned with just one area, some with many: prohibition, women's suffrage, business regulation, the environment, immigration, rights of blacks, labor and others. And, as I pointed out in my last post, there is a whole slew of legislation that could make your unit drier than the banana bread I made this morning.

But one thing about the Progressive Era is clear. There was a fundamental shift in the way we perceive the role of government. And a reorganization of how we define liberalism in the United States. What was considered "liberal" in the 19th century will become what is considered "conservative" in the twentieth. See the diagram below which illustrates this:

18th and 19th century
20th century
• protect natural rights (i.e. life, liberty and property)
representative government
• limited government
• it is the duty of government to intervene and regulate society
• use government power to solve social problems in order to insure the average citizen a decent political and economic life (thus govt becomes “bigger”)

The “Left”
The “right”

So one thing I like to do near the beginning of the Progressive Unit is to help students see where they fall on the political spectrum. It is challenging to help students understand that "liberal" and "conservative" do not equal "Democrat" and "Republican." If I had any good ideas on how to help you do that, I would. It is tricky business.

I think introducing the unit this way can help set up students' understanding of the differences between liberals and conservatives for the entire 20th century and through today. And in the shorter term, it helps them understand the fundamental change in the role of government beginning in the early 20th century.

I have used this questionnaire in class with students to get them to think about their political views. Looking at it now, I see that is poorly designed (most people, whether liberal or conservative, would be likely to agree with almost everything) so it probably should be reworked. But it could be useful to point out that all of these ideas were solidified during the Progressive Era.

And now, I have found some even better quizzes that you can use online with students to help them understand their political leanings. Check out this one from the Pew Research Center. If you don't have access to computers in class, you could ask students to do it at home and print out their result. But if you do have access, here is a link to the group version which you can use to create one for your entire class or all of your classes. Students will then be able to see how they compare to each other and to the nation as a whole. And in the interest of giving parents and kids something to talk about at the dinner table, how cool would it be to ask students to administer the quiz to their parents, too? Click here for explanation of the poll and analysis of the political typology.

Here are links to a few others you could use or adapt to create your own:
A few other useful ways to conceptualize the Progressive Era and/or interesting tidbits:

1. I usually draw something like this up on the board, to illustrate the flow of the 20th century. I do not usually add the little part at the end with Carter through Obama. I might talk about it, but I think this drawing makes it slightly misleading. The big curves represent 3 eras of reform and increased government programs and legislation (and of course, spending).  The arrows below refer to 3 periods characterized by either little reform or regulation, and also the wars that put an end to the reform eras. Once you get past Vietnam, things change. It's not that Carter, Clinton and Obama are reformers, while Reagan and Bush aren't. It's that those periods (in blue) are characterized by a rise in liberalism or conservativism. I fear that it may mislead students a bit, though. Plus it may suggest that Carter, Clinton and Obama are "high points" or successful, while Reagan and Bush are not. So use it with caution or as a starting point for a more refined version.

2. I came across this point in my notes that I thought was useful: that the Progressive Era transformed the legislature from the dominant branch of government to an enlarged executive branch. And it created, in a sense, a "fourth" branch of government: administrative boards and agencies.

3. About corruption: we now (sort of) seem to take for granted that corruption is entrenched in politics. And corruption in politics was not, before the Progressive Era, particularly new. But, according to my notes on an article by Richard L. McCormick ("The Discovery that Business Corrupts Politics: A Reappraisal of the Origins of Progressivism," in American Historical Review, (April 1981), corruption was no longer something that could be dismissed as simply actions of bad men in a particular time and place, but as a process that was at work everywhere. Therefore, regulation and increased administration becomes necessary to control this. You could have an interesting discussion about that--e.g. the nature of politics, the corrupting influence of power, etc.

4. And lastly, to further develop point #3, a word from my favorite Progressive, Theodore Roosevelt. Here is a great quotation to start off your unit/first day/brief discussion or at the beginning of your syllabus:
"A simple and poor society can exist as a democracy on the basis of sheer individualism. But a rich and complex society cannot so exist."
First explain--or have your students explain--what Roosevelt means. Then ask if they agree. Why? Why not? Does it depend? If so, on what? And how interesting is this in light of the person who said it. After all, Theodore Roosevelt was born to incredible wealth and privilege, but also suffered enormously from asthma and was considered a rather sickly little boy who would not likely live long. But through tremendous will and encouragement from his beloved father, he "remade" himself into one of the most powerful Presidents in American history.

Really, what Roosevelt is addressing is the one of THE big questions of life: the extent to which individuals have free will and the power to be whatever they can be. Can we, despite whatever bad hands we are dealt, rise about our circumstances, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be successful? Or are we limited or constricted by larger social, political and economic forces?

Now that's what I call an "essential question" you can really chew on.

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