A Challenge of Teaching Government & Politics
No one is above the basics, although many suspect they are. Don't make me get Reed Dickerson's ghost to yell at you.
Government is a highly technical, complicated field in which many people have convinced themselves that they are advanced practitioners.
This is one reason why teaching government can be hard.
People have a false, tightly held identity as “someone who knows about government and has smart opinions about politics,” despite knowing very little, or only knowing one small piece of the whole. They think they’re above the basics. I once got coffee with a government staffer who, after betraying an egregious lack of knowledge about their own workplace, magnanimously offered to TA my Foundations of New York class—this has happened more than once.
These people, ironically, will tend to stay away from basic governmental training. After all, don’t they already know that stuff? To learn government from the ground up would require revising their self image, especially if they’re doing it in any way that’s publicly visible.
Getting through to these kinds of people is its own, perfectly achievable art form. Thankfully, I also have great mentors to show me the way. Reed Dickerson, known as the “dean of American Legislative Drafting” (which means writing law, usually statute)1, delivered a speech in 1955 to a crowd of lawyers entitled “How to Write a Law.” The beginning of the speech is worth quoting at length:
At the outset I confess a sense of embarrassment that I feel whenever I talk or write about the problems of drafting. This comes from the fact that, unlike most legal topics, discussions of legislative drafting have to be conducted on a kindergarten level. Since the art of legal drafting in general, and of legislative drafting in particular, is only crudely developed, I can only talk about the most elementary matters to a sophisticated audience that is expecting me to be profound. This leaves me feeling like a man who is trying to explain the alphabet to a group of Ph. D.'s.
One reason why it is hard to teach people how to draft is that like all writing it looks easy. There is one thing upon which almost everyone prides himself, and that is his writing. This is especially true of lawyers. Not only do they underestimate the difficulties of writing but they tend to think of themselves as individually accomplished. It is hard to sell a man a new suit when he considers himself already well accoutered.
This poses a dilemma. If I am to make this subject clear to you, I must oversimplify it to the point of confirming your natural prejudices. On the other hand, if I am to paint a true impression, I must frighten or confuse you with a bewildering mass of principles, approaches, and details. I will do my best to take a middle course.
Another trouble with teaching drafting is that the instructor can't do it just by talking about it any more than he can teach you, just by talking, how to box or play the violin. There is no substitute for doing it yourself with the right kind of guidance. But, even with this reservation, there are some useful things we can talk about.
You could easily substitute “legislative drafting” for “understanding government,” and “lawyers” for “a lot of people, including members of the government,” and get what I’m talking about.
If you recognize yourself in this essay, or you’re like one of the lawyers that Dickerson was speaking to, I am here to tell you to relax.
Learning about government is fun and cool, especially if you do it with Maximum New Yorkers. They come into class with widely varying levels of knowledge, and go on to do things of varying sophistication, but everyone is excited to learn together—myself included. My students always ask great questions, some of which I don’t know the answer to. This is to be expected and celebrated, because we’re all just trying to rapidly up-skill and contribute to New York’s future.
No one needs to put up a front of false knowledge to obtain status, which is a common practice at any social event. In fact, if you do that, you will quickly be found out.
One of the two rules of etiquette in all of my classes is “be concrete,” which means: say what you mean in useful detail. If you say “the government should do [x], because that’s the obviously good thing,” I (or another student) will probably ask you: “Which part of the government, and who within that part? How will they get that done? What kind of law will need to get made, and what would it say?” You get the idea.
If you’re a student of government (and who among us isn’t, really): relax. Have a good time. Learn about government. This practice is one of the keys to a better New York.
If you’re a current or would-be civics instructor: meet your students where they are. Some of them will be fleeing the premises.