The Citizenship Exam and Popular Culture

Every year as part of my constitutional law final exam, I give my students a mini “citizenship exam.” I ask six questions that derive from the U.S. Citizenship Exam, which are about the U.S. Constitution. I tell my students they can go to the U.S. government website and review the questions there, or they can just read the Constitution. Doing either should prepare them well for that portion of the exam. The questions I ask are straight forward and, I would suppose, easy: How does one amend the Constitution per Article V? What are the first ten amendments called? Who, according to the Constitution, has the power to declare war? Most students score 100% on this portion of the final exam — as I would hope. But sometimes I am surprised, unhappily so, by a pattern I see in the wrong answers. I asked the last question — the power to declare war — this year, and I was worried and angry by the number of students who answered that question: the President. (Angry: Weren’t they paying attention? Worried: What kind of teacher am I?) And then I thought about the question and how, as with some of the questions in the past, the right answer conflicts with our present experience of our political order and popular culture.

Of course the Constitution does say that Congress declares war, not the President, but since World War II, the United States Congress hasn’t declared war on any nation despite having authorized troops to serve in many, many war zones. No wonder students are confused. All the more reason they should have heard and remembered the classes on the war powers, I think. And all the more reason I should have been that much clearer in class. So although popular cuture can wreak havoc on learning, it can, of course, also be a teacher’s best friend. I tend to embrace it in my classroom (playing Billy Bragg’s Everywhere when I teach Korematsu, showing clips from West Wing when teaching Roe v. Wade). But in this case, I forgot the lesson. For our unit on war powers, I should have played this clip of President Bush declaring “mission accomplished” on May 1, 2003. Nothing like the problem staring you in the face to jump start a classroom discussion on the separation of powers. (And the problem can be defined in any number of ways for a good discussion about the constitutional order — the scope of the implied Art II powers, Congress’s reluctance to declare war but its willingness to fund it, etc.). Playing this clip by MoveOn.org would have just derailed the pedagogical lesson (so I will try and refrain next year) but perhaps it would good in some class. Suggestions welcome.

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1 Response

  1. William McGeveran says:

    I really like the idea of including the citizenship exam questions on your final.

    Maybe the problem here is just the word “declare.” As you say, since WWII that declaration has evolved into a formalism and the real power to actually engage in a war is the President’s under the constitutional commander-in-chief power. (Putting aside what ought to be the rule and just being descriptive here.)

    So it’s a good thing you added “according to the constitution” to the text of your question. If you hadn’t, maybe those students would be correct, or at least deserve credit for the answer…