Seeking Non-Partisan Answers to Politically-Charged Questions

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I like to joke with my students when they ask me a question to which I have no idea the answer: believe it or not, being a historian does not mean knowing all things about all aspects of history. Case in point: my admittedly-sketchy knowledge of the finer points of the US Constitution. 


Over the last several weeks I’ve found myself searching the web for reliable non-partisan sources to help students with questions they have about current events related to the transfer of power, the nomination of a candidate to the Supreme Court, and contested elections. Twenty-plus years ago, as a graduate student preparing for doctoral exams, I no doubt could have answered these questions with a lot more certainty than I can today. Nowadays, I leave the day-to-day teaching of the Constitution to my expert colleagues in political science.


So this week I’m sharing some of the resources that I and my students have found particularly helpful in recent days. Side note: there are seemingly infinite resources online.  I have sought to be as non-partisan as possible with these suggestions while acknowledging that every source has a bias of one sort or another.


The National Constitution Center has a fabulous “Interactive Constitution” that allows students to read the document by segment, offers brief articles on common/shared arguments, and a section called “Matters of Debate” written by scholars on opposing sides of interpretations. For any student or teacher looking for a straightforward, accessible site for easy reference, the National Constitution Center is the place to start. The Constitution Annotated is a more scholarly but also useful site that calls itself “a comprehensive, government-sanctioned record of the interpretations of the Constitution.” 


If, after the circus of the first Presidential Debate, you have students asking “what’s the point?” send them to the Commission on Presidential Debates web site, which is an amazing resource for transcripts and videos. Here students have the opportunity to judge for themselves how debates have changed in practice and process throughout the twentieth century. The “Debate History” tab will take students all the way back to the 1858 debates. Asking the students to compare our 2020 Presidential Debate(s) to one from years past is a fun way to engage them in a discussion of the media’s role in politics and to consider how candidates’ interactions with each other have changed dramatically over time.


Finally, if students are curious about the history of voting/voting rights in the United States, there are many websites that provide basic timelines and some analysis. See, for example, the Carnegie Corporation’s Voting Rights: A Short History, which offers a brief illustrated timeline. The League of Women Voters’ educational initiative may be of interest to students who want to learn how non-partisan organizations seek to encourage voter turnout. Students may also find useful voting resources by checking the web sites for their state’s Secretary of State’s Office. My home state of Massachusetts, for example, maintains a robust and informative site to help with all kinds of voting-related questions. 


These next several weeks will no doubt be politically contentious. As historians and teachers, the best we can do is offer our students resources to consider where our country has been historically and the critical thinking skills to decide the direction of our nation’s future.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.