Tag Archives: final exam

The Next Generation

Let me begin with an academic caveat/truism: anecdotes are not data. I know that.

I will nevertheless repeat what I have often said: I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat. If my graduate students are at all representative of their generation, they are admirable–inclusive, thoughtful and respectful of evidence.

We have just concluded the spring semester. I give my Law and Public Affairs class a take-home final with three essay questions, from which they are to choose one. Depending upon the question, I’m looking for essays that reflect understanding of the course content and an ability to apply it, recognition of the constraints imposed on policymakers by the Constitution and the rule of law, and a willingness to address the complexities of the conflicts currently bedeviling the policy process.

One of the essay questions on this semester’s final was the following:

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” Without addressing the personal characteristics of either candidate in the 2016 election, and without opining whether America was or was not greater in the past, explain the very different views of American greatness suggested by the elections in 2016 and 2018. Do you think these very opposed views of our national character can be reconciled? Why or why not? If not, what do you believe will be the consequence?

Several students chose to respond to that question. I’d like to share parts of one of those responses, not just because it is well-written, but because I think it reflects views that are  widely-held by members of the student’s generation.

The very actors who helped cause the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic downturn have again found a way to capitalize. Ironically, this time it’s on the distrust and anxieties that came out of the Great Recession, where so many lost their jobs or homes or health and have yet to regain any of it, despite this administration’s boasts of a bull market and rising GDP. “If we could just go back,” they argue (back to when or where exactly, no one knows), the answers to our problems must be found in the past. Whereas Donald Trump wants to “Make American Great Again,” Pete Buttigieg tells us “There is no honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’” After spending a lot of time thinking about what Buttigieg means by this, I keep coming back to the fundamental question of greatness: What constitutes it in the first place?

What we see today are two different views of greatness. The first sets its sights primarily on economic gain and American sameness, an image less of America but of Americana – one designed mostly by the mid-20th century rise in the advertising, media, and entertainment industries. It’s a place where complexity is reduced to palatable one-liners, a place that can be experienced on a postcard or a Route 66 tour bus. The other view of American greatness, as promulgated by Buttigieg and a host of other progressive voices, is rooted in a very different kind of principle, one I would argue is more realistic about the complexity of our society and the problems we face, but one that’s also hopeful about how American can become greater. This version of American greatness is grounded in the principle that the ways in which we are different from one another are also the ways in which we can be better together. It’s the notion that we can take the very best ideas from each corner of American society and weave those together to create a system that works for everyone. These two versions of greatness might face opposite directions, but their stake is the same: Who gets included in the realization of the Great American Ideal? More importantly, who gets left behind when change comes?

I think these paragraphs do a wonderful job of describing dramatically different visions of American “greatness,” and the very divergent paths the country may choose. My student has cast her vote, concluding that

Making American greater starts by figuring out how to make it work for everyone.

I fervently hope that it will be people like this student who take America into the future.

The Next Generation

Amidst the gloom and doom that is today’s political environment, there are rays of hope.

I often tell people that I would turn the country over to my students in a heartbeat. They are inclusive, community-oriented and passionate about fairness and civic equality. (Granted, they have enrolled in a School of Public and Environmental Affairs, so they are arguably a self-selected group.)

In my graduate law and policy class, I give a take-home final. (This is an effort to make up for a difficult in-class midterm, a demanding group project and a 20-page research paper.) The final consists of three questions; students are to choose one of the three and write an essay addressing it.

Unlike that midterm, there are no right or wrong answers. I’m looking for thoughtful responses–answers that tell me that they have considered the strengths and weaknesses of American governance and have formed defensible policy positions.

Two of the questions on this year’s final elicited particularly interesting responses. Here’s one of them:

It is 2020, and you have been elected President of the United States. You are following an administration that has made significant—even monumental—changes to American public policies. Which of those changes would you accept and follow? Which would you change? (I am not looking for exhaustive lists; choose one or two areas to discuss and justify your decision to accept or reject the current administration’s approach.) For each policy you would retain or reverse, explain why it is or is not supportive of the common good and/or consistent with America’s Constitutional values.

The students who chose this question were uniformly critical of the current administration, and very specific in their critiques. They all faulted Trump on environmental policy. Several pointed out that the “Muslim ban” violated the First Amendment. Economic policy and the tax “reform” bill came in for considerable scorn, as did efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act and failures to enact meaningful gun control or improve immigration policy.

I was particularly struck by essays from students addressing this question:

Earth has been destroyed in World War III. You and a few thousand others—representing a cross-section of Earth’s races, cultures and religions—are the only survivors. You have escaped to an earthlike planet and are preparing to establish a new society. You want to avoid the errors of the Earth governments that preceded you. What institutional choices do you make and why? Your essay should address:The type/structure of government you would create; the powers it will have; the limits on its powers, and how those limits will be enforced; how government officials will be chosen and policies enacted;the social and political values you intend to privilege, and the reasons for your choices.

When I’ve included a similar question in the past, most students have dutifully constructed a government patterned after that of the U.S. This year, there were more creative efforts, some borrowing from European and Canadian models, others proposing “from scratch” governance concepts. Three or four proposed to outlaw political parties, and all of them suggested mechanisms intended to prevent gridlock. A couple included stringent qualifications for holding public office.

All the responses included universal healthcare and other elements of a robust social safety net–including, in one case, a Universal Basic Income. All of them included mechanisms meant to eliminate or vastly reduce the role of money in politics. All of them provided for a rigorous civic education. All of them emphasized and protected the right to vote  (some made Election Day  a holiday, some allowed vote-by-mail and a couple made voting mandatory. One made vote suppression a felony.) All had laws protecting civil liberties and the environment.

All of them described legal systems protective of civic equality, and most suggested policies promoting respect for diversity.

The proposals weren’t uniformly practical, and there wasn’t a lot of space for details in any event, but virtually all of them showed that the writers had genuinely grappled with the question and considered the essential elements of a just society.

Needless to say, all of them came across as more thoughtful and informed than Donald Trump and his swamp.

If this country manages to survive the current administration, we’ll be in good hands.