Who Chooses War in a Constitutional Democracy?
It’s not often that one of the fundamental democratic questions is front and center for us. When President Obama spoke on Saturday about his intention that the United States should take military action against Syria, he seemed to imply that an important debate is still to be had on the question of how a democracy chooses to go to war.
If a goal of our work in History and Social Science classrooms is to provide a student-centered over content-centered experience – and that’s a debate that should be rested by now – then middle and high school teachers around the country should be rethinking their lesson plans for Tuesday. What is before us this week is an opportunity to put students in an authentic inquiry, to behave as citizens of a democracy are intended to, and to practice important historical and critical thinking skills.
Whether it’s your first day of class, as mine will be in AP Government, or you’re a month in, consider taking Tuesday September 3rd to lead an inquiry-based discussion about democracy and war, about what it means to be a citizen in the United States.
To be sure you’re all set (or to provide further context for students if so desired), make a quick study of the War Powers page at the Library of Congress. Familiarize yourself with the debates over war powers from the Vietnam and Iraq wars.
To begin the classroom lesson, pose the Discussion Question at the top of this post: Who Chooses War in a Constitutional Democracy? Invite some responses from students, and try to lead the conversation toward a recap of the events of the last two years in Syria, and of the last few weeks in Washington.
Then, put these documents in front of small groups of students:
- Text of President Obama’s speech re strikes on Syria, on 8/31/13: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/world/middleeast/text-of-president-obamas-remarks-on-syria.html?pagewanted=all
- The U.S. Constitution from the National Archives, Articles I, sec. 8, and II, sec. 2: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html
- War Powers Act of 1973, sec. 1-5, via Yale Law School: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/warpower.asp
Post these questions for students to use while reading the documents:
- What are the key words and what do they mean? [Define]
- What does the passage mean? [Summarize]
- How does this passage relate to the DQ? [Analyze]
After allowing students to discuss DQ in their small groups, bring them back and lead a full class discussion on the question. Invite them to make a list of follow-up questions in their notes – ask them what questions are developing for them, and what answers do they need to be able to answer the DQ. Brainstorm the list of questions in front of the whole class.
For an overnight assignment, invite students to investigate their questions and to look for more information. Discuss in class how that went, and look for ways to teach important lessons of information literacy.
I would follow up this class discussion with a online discussion that runs all week. A driving question for that could be about the proper role of a citizen: how important is it to discuss key questions? to share ideas with other citizens? to communicate with and be involved with political leaders? Students will come to their own conclusions about citizenship.
One of our most important roles as educators is to prepare the citizenry for participation in democracy. We are presented this week with an opportunity to make this learning goal authentic, meaningful, and engaging for students.