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Seeking Good "Basics of American Government and History" Book for Incoming Law Students:

Brian Kalt, a lawprof at Michigan State, asks this question, which struck me as much worth raising:

What is a good book to recommend to students who (whether because they are from another country, were engineering or fine arts majors, or just plain didn't pay attention in high school) don't know the basics of American history and American government?

What do you folks think?

UPDATE: The introductory paragraphs that preceded the question were removed at the questioner's request.

M (mail):
It's probably quite hard to get in the US, unfortunately, but USAID published a book edited by Melvin I. Urofsky called _Basic Readings in US Democracy_ that would be excellent. It's not a narative over-view so might not be exactly what's looked for here but it has excerpts from most of the most important documents and short introductions that explain and contextualize them. Even if people just read the introductions they'd have good basic knowledge. (The book was designed to be given out to people by US information officers over-seas but would be quite good for Americans, too. Hard to get, unfortunately, it seems.)
6.6.2007 8:50am
Positroll (mail):
It's probably quite hard to get in the US, unfortunately, but USAID published a book edited by Melvin I. Urofsky called _Basic Readings in US Democracy_ that would be excellent.
It's available online:
http://usinfo.state.gov/usa/infousa/facts/democrac/demo.htm
6.6.2007 9:01am
A.B. (mail):
Foner's Story of American Freedom is good, and better still has a fairly legal focus for what is basically a survey text
6.6.2007 9:02am
John Neff (mail):
I just did a search on "US History in a nutshell" and found some web pages that were intended for a foreign audience. I also did a search on "civics" and found a lot of material appropriate for primary and secondary students. I think a more exhaustive search would be fruitful. To become a citizen you have to learn about history and government so there has to be material that will serve the needs of your students.
6.6.2007 9:06am
rlb:
Social security might be illegal? Imagine that.
6.6.2007 9:15am
Nellie:
I think you've slurred us engineers. The fact that a person is knowledgeable in one area does not necessarily make him uninformed in another. The fallacy is common; witness the cliches about the technical incompetence of "art history majors" and "English majors." Studying English does not make you technically incompetent. The problem is not with what you do study -- it's with what you fail to study or to learn -- formally or informally.
6.6.2007 9:18am
Kevin Nilsson (mail) (www):
Although I have yet to read it, I've heard good things about "People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present" by Howard Zinn - although I know some people can't stand Zinn.
6.6.2007 9:23am
Stevethepatentguy (mail) (www):
History of the American People by Paul Johnson is big (over 1000 pages) but includes anything you might ever need to know in law school.

Nilsson: some people can't stand Zinn, but reading People's History will prepare a student for a law professor.

Let me put in my two cents for engineers; and I'm telling Ann Althouse that you're picking on fine art majors.
6.6.2007 9:41am
Brian Kalt (mail):
Nellie, you make a fair point. However, any time you spend studying A is time you spend not studying B, and without being too black and white, I think it is fair to say that history majors tend to know more history than non-history majors. More to the point, in my own experience, engineering students are disproportionately likely to self-identify as having this problem in their knowledge. (Interestingly, in my experience, engineers are also more likely to self-identify as not being as skilled at legal writing, though I find that their analytical and logical skills tend to be strong and make up for any gaps in their writing experience.)

rlb, one can certainly argue in a constitutional law class that social security is unconstitutional (I've probably done it myself), but on an exam that asks for analysis under current case law, and calls for a conclusion as to the likely result in court . . . ?

While I'm posting, I should apologize for my hyperbole. Calling the handful of exams that spurred my question "god-awful" was disrespectful to my students; "subpar" would have been more appropriate.
6.6.2007 9:47am
anonVCfan:
If it takes a Canadian to realize the unconstitutionality of Social Security and sandwiches, then we're in trouble.
6.6.2007 9:47am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Just check the "For Dummies" series. There's a book on just about everything.

If this knowledge is so important for law students, why doesn't the application process screen for it, or why don't the law schools offer remedial American history.
6.6.2007 9:50am
John Horowitz (mail) (www):
Could Mr. Kalt give an example of some historical context that the students should know but don't, thus leading them wildly astray? This sounds entertaining, yes, but also informative.
6.6.2007 10:31am
DiverDan (mail):
Don't know if Law Students are willing to take on more heavy reading during 1-L, but I would highly recommend Henry Steele Commager's The Growth of the American Republic -- maybe I'm biased because I love Commager's comment "The greatest danger we face is not any particular kind of thought. The greatest danger we face is absence of thought." As for an historical perspective on the Constitution, nothing beats The Federalist Papers and Debates on the Constitution.
6.6.2007 10:39am
Tracy Johnson (www):
If students are singularly lacking in U.S. history, what are they doing in law school? Perhaps it is time that law students are treated like medical students and must take something called "Pre-Law" in a four year institution like medical students are required to take "Pre-Med"?
6.6.2007 10:41am
Blithering Idiot (mail) (www):
While it's more of a constitutional law textbook for undergrad, (and I think it's out of print), I found C. Herman Pritchett's Constitutional Law of the Federal System very helpful on providing historical background. Similarly, see his companion volume Constitutional Civil Liberties. Both of my copies are heavily used.
6.6.2007 10:45am
TDPerkins (mail):
These are the students who argue that my little hypothetical statute is unconstitutional, seemingly unaware that if they were right, then things like the Social Security Administration, traffic laws, and sandwiches would be illegal.


Wow. Forget about what to read. With what hypothetical statute and then by what reasoning does the gentlemen show that if the statute is unconstitutional, then so is soc. sec. and also sandwiches?
6.6.2007 10:49am
anonVCfan:
Must be a statute that gives favored status to things that begin with "S" -- social security, sandwiches, and stop signs.
6.6.2007 10:51am
Brett Bellmore:
I can understand how somebody might conclude that Social Security and (federal) traffic laws are unconstitutional; That's a straightforward application of the 10th amendment to the list of enumerated powers in Article 3. MOST of what the federal government does today is unconstitutional if you don't throw out the 10th amendment, or render it moot by 'interpreting' one of those powers into a grant of general authority to legislate on all topics. But how does somebody conclude that a sandwich is unconstitutional? That seems to be a pretty blatent catagory error.

The problem with applying reason to modern constitutional law is that it's not a product of reason, it's a product of rationalization. Any effort to reason systematically about it is going to fail to produce anything like what the courts have generated, no matter what your starting premises.
6.6.2007 10:54am
Wallace (mail):
I reccomend Samuel Eliot Morrison's Oxford History of the American People. It's an excellent survey of American hsitory. Morison was the Navy's historian for years and his writing is lively, interspersed with interesting anecdotes and style. While generally positive about America, he doesn't shy away from the negative things. The only drawback is that the work is a three volume series, which might be daunting to some students. I found it far easier to read than your typical airport novel.

Howard Zinn's book is a reaction to high school textbooks which tend to portray America in a favorable light. Zinn goes through every event in American history to spin it in the most negative way possible. While there may be some need to balance out the overall pro-American history, if Zinn was the first comprhensive book you read about America then you'd probably be afraid to live here.
6.6.2007 10:55am
DaSarge (mail):
I have to know: What was the question?

That said, Prof. Galt is correct. My son had NO introduction to Civics (as we used to call it) in High School. He is now taking a 100 level PolySci course & I have to daily give him a tutorial on the basics of American Gov't and history. [E.g., he didn't know who "The Framers" were & he had never heard of the separation of power, let alone why.] I much enjoy this and it is great time with my son. That said, what a failure of education.

My niece just finished her 1st year at law school. They taught Con Law in the 1st year!! A cum laude graduate from a fine liberal arts school -- & her lawyer Dad (my bro) had to give her the same tutorials.

I am a BA, MA, JD -- lucky for my son. What about the kids not so lucky?

By the way, if they are going to demand 1st years take Con Law, there needs to be an entrance exam on American gov't, history, etc.
6.6.2007 10:56am
Bill N:
I'd suggrest Melvin Urofsky's March of Liberty. Although a two-volume textbook, rather than a general book on U.S. history and government, it provides outstanding historical context for the very issues that Con Law would cover. Urofsky is a great legal and constitutional historian, and a terrific writer.
6.6.2007 11:03am
uh clem (mail):
I'm with TDPerikns and DaSarge. How can you tease us with a hypothetical statute that somehow implies the unconstitutinality of sandwiches without saying what it is?

C'mon. Give us the question.
6.6.2007 11:03am
uh clem (mail):
Will it help my case if I spell "unconstitutionality" correctly?
6.6.2007 11:04am
ATRGeek:
Judging from the Amazon reviews, some people thought the US History "for Dummies" book was too biased, or at least too opinionated, a problem also shared by the "Complete Idiot's" version, the "Don't Know Much" version, and so on. Of course, I doubt one can eliminate that problem when it comes to history, but the overall best-reviewed primer I came across appeared to be the "Children's Encyclopedia of American History", published in association with the Smithsonian.

And if the "Children's" in the title seems off-putting, I would suggest law students would benefit from an early introduction to exactly how infantilizing the whole process of legal education actually is.
6.6.2007 11:07am
tbaugh (mail):
As a preparation for con law, Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is invaluable.
6.6.2007 11:08am
Brian Kalt (mail):
Duffy,
It is not just history but also general political awareness (e.g., the cop who pulls you over is not a federal officer; the government regulates product safety; etc.). To answer your question, though, we do offer remedial education in all of this stuff--I spend valuable class time explaining things that half the class already knows. The problem is that this is time-consuming and also that it is invariably under-inclusive. If there were a short book--100 pages or so--on all of this that someone could read just before the semester, it would solve the problem.

It would also be an easy enough solution that it would be unnecessary to keep out of law school anyone who hadn't yet acquired this knowledge.
6.6.2007 11:13am
TDPerkins (mail):
My son had NO introduction to Civics (as we used to call it) in High School.


My high school social studies instructor--terribly and unhideably scarred by taking WP round almost in his throat in Vietnam--had the temerity to ensure I would never sit on a jury by telling us about the jury's duty to judge the facts of the case, the law, and the application of the law to the facts. He elucidated his reasons and the history of it, and I have never heard anything persuasive to the contrary. That and the way my psych class covered statistics are the most valuable courses I took in that whole three years.

If I had them, I recommend prospective law students read my class notes.

PS BrettBellmore who wrote: "The problem with applying reason to modern constitutional law is that it's not a product of reason, it's a product of rationalization." Ve haff vays of making you talk. You are und ze short list.
6.6.2007 11:13am
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
How can a sandwich be unconstitutional? Perhaps the name, which honors the Earl of Sandwich, constitutes a 'Title of Nobility', and needs to be changed to something more American? Sorry, I can't come up with anything better than that.
6.6.2007 11:21am
storm1926:
ditto on: Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
6.6.2007 11:22am
Reader (mail):
The Dummies books are generally very bad (e.g., the one on Catholicism was a joke), and the Zinn book does not teach "real" history. Sorry - I know this is not a rec, but those books are terrible.
6.6.2007 11:23am
p.d.:
I'm with you on statistics. I think basic stats is just as important as civics for incoming law students. It would limit at least some of the blatant logical fallacies you hear in first year courses.
6.6.2007 11:23am
e:
1. Part of the problem is that one need not be a history buff to understand the basic principles of con law, but many con law professors become history buffs and expect students to mirror that. My con law I prof would have been better if he'd actually tried to teach principles in a coherent way rather than pontificate on amusing distractions more appropriate in advanced scholarship than a foundational course.

2. For the person suggesting pre-law, I think that would be a shame, reducing diversity in thought and experience, and pre-med studies are not required, though most schools do require organic chemistry. History is more accessible than chemistry, and while I might suggest some history classes as part of any college study, highshool or independent study is sufficient to get context for legal studies.
6.6.2007 11:28am
triticale (mail) (www):
I would wager that the unconstitutionality of sandwiches falls under the Commerce Clause, as currently applied. Never mind that said clause presumed sovereign states and pre-empted them from regulating out-of state imports.
6.6.2007 11:31am
Al Maviva (mail) (www):
The problem with survey courses and their texts is that they are glosses on the history, what the hardscrabble events of 250 years ago look like to a professor sitting in a comfy library today. You can't get get a good read on the history without reading a couple books. I'd recommend Zinn and Eggleston for divergent views, that probably averages out to fair &balanced.

Moreover, primary sources are generally much more useful than mile-wide inch-deep survey books. It should be a pre-requisite to law school to read the Federalist Papers. Too much Con Law instruction and consequently too much of our popular understanding of Con Law is focused on individual rights. There is little or no understanding of the functions of vertical and horizontal separation of powers, much less the dangers the structural portion of the constitution is meant to counteract.
6.6.2007 11:33am
Elliot123 (mail):
Is it reasonable to conclude many law school grads who pass the bar and enter practice have a similar gap in their knowledge of American history?
6.6.2007 11:35am
uh clem (mail):
How can a sandwich be unconstitutional?

I don't know, but if it's a ham sandwich, any decent DA can get the grand jury to indict it.
6.6.2007 11:39am
Brad D. Bailey (mail):
My suggestion: trot over to the student bookstore or the History department and find out what the History professors are using for texts in their survey courses.

Selected Federalist Papers, 1, 3,4,5,9 and 10 for starters.
6.6.2007 11:42am
FantasiaWHT:
Hey I was a fine arts major and I just got top grades in Con Law! I resent that ;) Of course, taking AP US History in high school may have helped some...
6.6.2007 11:58am
Jef S (mail):
The best actual documents I have found to be in the Library of America's The Debate on the Constitution. The most remarkable thing is how accessible and familiar are the minds and outlooks of the writers. Allowing for some grammar/syntax evolution, most of the material could be published today as opinion pieces and be though contemporary. A few quick pieces on a specific topic, say Trench Coxe's 3 short columns, which come right at the start of the analogy, comparing the proposed President/Senate/House to the UK's King/Lords/Commons, are far more engrossing and provocative to students than the textbook versions of the debate.
6.6.2007 12:03pm
John Robinson (mail):
Wilson/DiIulio Jr's American Government is very good.
6.6.2007 12:13pm
Mongoose 388:
Based on their lack of US history is it safe to assume thes would be lawyers ignore the idea of precedence and the living breathing document argumentin favor of strict iterpretation of the constitution?
6.6.2007 12:14pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Mongoose 388, I do not think they would assume that at all. I expect that have read the document more than once, and seeing what has transpired, social security, gun laws, drug laws, etc; they must think the Constitution is not binding against the wishes of the majority, unless the SC thinks it can get away with a decision contrary to the najority.

And in that case, they must think what the SCOTUS says goes, goes, the constitution notwithstanding.

Unless they've heard of Jackson telling the SCOTUS what to do with their opinion.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
6.6.2007 12:19pm
Ex parte McCardle:
Second on DiverDan's recommendation of Commager as a general introduction: concise, fair, emphasizes all the right points in the right proportions.
6.6.2007 12:20pm
jimbino (mail):
Nellie got it right. What distinguishes the hard science and math major from the typical law student is that he has taken the hardest classes available, has probably mastered a foreign language and has gained competence in the humanities and fine arts.

Another thing that distinguishes him is that he usually has better things to do than pursue the study of law: witness the dearth of math and hard science majors in the typical law school class. Mine at UT Austin had 5 out of 140.

Witness also the ignorance of math and science that characterizes the typical lawyer and almost every judge.
6.6.2007 12:22pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Ahem, once more, without haste.

Mongoose 388, I do not think that should be assumed at all. I expect that they have read the document more than once, and seeing what has transpired--social security, gun laws, drug laws, etc--they must think the Constitution is not effectively binding against the wishes of the majority, until and unless the majority of the SCOTUS thinks it can get away with a decision contrary to the majority, and has that desire.

And in that case, they must think what the SCOTUS says goes, goes, the constitution notwithstanding.

Unless they've heard of Jackson telling the SCOTUS what to do with their opinion.

They are equally unlikely to have heard of Marbury...

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
6.6.2007 12:23pm
Brian Kalt (mail):
Mr. Horowitz,
An example of some historical context that the students should know but don't, thus leading them wildly astray: strong federal civil rights laws were passed soon after the Civil War, many were struck down; others were passed about a hundred years later and were not struck down.

TDPerkins et al.
I had a question about banning cell phones while driving. There were alternative, hypothetical, potentially problematic statutes: (1) the states regulated directly (requiring installing a doodad in the car that prevented phoning while driving); (2) the feds regulated directly (making phoning while driving a federal crime); (3) the feds regulated through conditional spending (docking 40% of federal highway dollars from any state that didn't punish phoning while driving); and (4) and the feds regulated through purported taxation (a $10,000 "tax" on phoning while driving).

I'll leave aside the full range of issues and answers I got, good and bad (and plenty were good). A few missed the boat in a specific way that spurred my question.

For instance, some people characterized the burden on interstate commerce that (1) would represent in a way that would make, say, speed limits illegal.

On (2), some students lacked any sense of the extent to which traffic stops are done by local or state police (because of the way I wrote the hypo, federalizing traffic offenses would present problems of executive commandeering a la Printz).

On (3), many students lacked an appreciation of how huge a blow it would be to dock 40% of a state's highway funding (I'll leave aside the fact that I raised that very point in class when we discussed Dole and its 5% penalty; students surfing the Internet in class is fodder for another thread or two).

On (4), a few students said that the tax was unconstitutional because it meant that only rich people would be able to phone while driving. They have not yet had Con Law II, where they will learn why, as a matter of constitutional law, that sort of discrimination is perfectly acceptable. But a moment's reflection (admittedly not always easy to take in the heat of an exam) should have made these few students aware that under that reasoning, vast swathes of the U.S. Code would be struck down.

My "Social Security, traffic laws, and sandwiches" line was not specific to this year, other than perhaps the traffic part--this stuff happens every year. The issue is usually with students who make "bad=unconstitutional" arguments, unaware not just of the actual rules but also of the implications of that argument for analogous laws that they don't seem to realize exist.

The "Social Security would be unconstitutional" examples tend to come with questions in which the feds are taxing onerously and spending objectionably for "the general welfare," and these students try to make a general principle out of their gut reaction, and say something like "the feds don't have the power to use the Spending Clause to transfer wealth."

The unconstitutional sandwich implication admittedly represents some exaggeration on my part. Here's the scenario, though: some bad thing is happening in the hypo; the feds take some action that makes it worse; the student argues that the federal action is unconstitutional because it doesn't solve the problem. The principle: the existence of bad things are unconstitutional. There are lots of problems with sandwiches (even allowing for their aforementioned tendency to get indicted by weak-minded grand juries), so by extension, Congress's willingness to allow them to continue to exist violates the Everything Bad Is Unconstitutional Clause of Article VIII.

Overall, I hold out hope that a better grounding in history, civics, and current affairs would make some of these students think twice before saying some of these things. I harbor no illusions about this though, and I recognize that they would also be fine if they just got the rules right.

I suspect that the bigger problem is not these manifestations on the exam, but rather that students would learn the rules quicker and better if they were plugging it in to a good understanding of the past and present of the United States. I'd make this analogy--it is easier to learn the rules of spelling if you actually know the words and have seen them before in print. It isn't impossible if you don't, but it is much harder, and you become much more likely to spell fish "ghoti."
6.6.2007 12:35pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Howard Zinn is too far left, and Paul Johnson too far right, to be useful; it would be interesting to teach U.S. history by assigning both books, but that's not helpful to a pre-law student.

I'd recommend Hugh Brogan's history of the U.S. published by Penguin. It's useful to get a Brit's view from the outside, it's reasonably well-written, and his political judgments are moderate-to-right.
6.6.2007 12:36pm
Mark Field (mail):
It's very hard to identify a single source of reading. Some suggestions:

1. Madison's Notes of Debates. I find this both easier to read and more informative than the Federalist.

2. James Sharp's "American Politics in the Early Republic".

3. William Freehling's "The Road to Disunion". Vol. I is better and all you need for this purpose.

4. Library of America's collection of Lincoln's speeches and writings. Just read the speeches; they're the not just compelling, they're moving.

5. Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters". Again, reading just the first volume of the set will be enough for this purpose.

This list leaves out anything relating to the Progressive Movement and/or the New Deal. That's because I don't know of any good summary. There is a new biography of FDR by Jean Edward Smith which has gotten good reviews, but I haven't read it. That might work.
6.6.2007 12:42pm
Mark Field (mail):
I should add that there are several good books summarizing the post Civil War racial issues. One recent work would be Edward Blum's "Reforging the White Republic". There are some others I can't recall since I'm at work. When I get home I'll add them.
6.6.2007 12:46pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Prof. Brian Kalt,

I thank you for your kind reply. The sandwich bit was what most interested me, and I do think it is a bit strained.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
6.6.2007 1:06pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
I'm guessing the Law in a Nutshell series has something on legal history, or maybe on the common law,that might fit the bill.
Otherwise, the answer is to read a newspaper daily, discuss it at the dinner table,and start by age 10.
The Zinn book is good as a second book, whatever your first choice will be. If you want better exam answers, give a practice exam not later than midterm. A pre-test at the beginning of the semester to assess the background info level of your students might be useful. A letter in the spring (or now) to the students you will have in the fall, letting know what text you'll use and a few hints of books for background reading, would be useful.
6.6.2007 1:25pm
runape (mail):
Skim or read excerpts of Amar's Bill of Rights or America's Constitution. Neither are "quick" reads but they're very accessible.
6.6.2007 1:34pm
JRL:
I hope you're giving a lot of F's.
6.6.2007 1:35pm
David Drake:
The Federalist Papers would be the best start for Con Law I, but, as noted above, that--and basic U.S. history-- should have been read years before applying to law school.
I agree with Tracy Johnson--how could someone with little knowledge of U.S. government and history even want to be a lawyer, let alone be able to get into law school?

Soon, law schools may have to offer remedial U.S. history and government courses for law students, the way that we had remedial accounting for law students when I was in law school. Pity.
6.6.2007 1:40pm
David Starr (mail):
Morison and Commager, "Growth of the American Republic". Best American history book by two of the best American historians ever. Was the standard college textbook for US history. The writing is so good that reading the book is a positive pleasure. You have to have read Morison and Commager (or something like it) before The Federalist Papers will mean much. The Federalist is good stuff, but without the broader background to the period, the history, the issues, and the law; the Federalist Papers won't mean much to students.
6.6.2007 1:57pm
Fub:
Brian Kalt wrote (in original post):
What is a good book to recommend to students who (whether because they are from another country, were engineering or fine arts majors, or just plain didn't pay attention in high school) don't know the basics of American history and American government?
Back circa early 1950s, Barnes and Noble published a series called The College Outline Series. The series consisted of 300-500 pp outlines of subject matter. These were both very rich or dense in factual material and very short. They typically contained thumbnail biographies of major figures, thumbnail narratives of major events (or theories in some subjects), well organized, well indexed, with excellent bibliographies. Subject matter ranged from accounting to zoology.

B&N's College Outline of American Colonial &Revolutionary History was written by Marshall Smelser. I have not read it, but have read other books in the B&N College Outline series, and have found excellent overviews or synopses.

College Outline of American Colonial &Revolutionary History is OOP now, but Smelser's later American History at a Glance is still available, and only about 300pp. Although the Amazon description does suggest it is less citation rich than the old B&N College Outlines, it may still be worth reviewing for your purpose.
6.6.2007 2:01pm
Al Maviva (mail) (www):
Right on, Jimbino. I've met lots of science and math majors known for their fluency in foreign languages and mastery of the humanities - as upposed to uss dum loiers. Most of the scientists and engineers I know have secret identities, fly without the aid of mechanical assistance, and look through buildings, cars and clothing with their x-ray vision - or they would, if their superhuman respect for other people's privacy interests didn't preclude doing so...
6.6.2007 2:01pm
ATRGeek:
Mongoose 388,

I think that what Kalt reports (the "if I think it is bad it must be unconstitutional" viewpoint) can be operationalized through pretty much any theory of constitutional interpretation, and a lack of historical knowledge is generally an aid to this process.

For example, I frequently see people who claim to be "originalists" simply assert, without any apparent knowledge of history or attempt to do the required research, that the framers and/or ratifiers of the Constitution must have intended to do X and not Y. In other words, they simply assume that the relevant historic figures would have agreed with whatever they want the Constitution to do, and they do not perform any notable due diligence with respect to this assumption.

Of course, this is just an example, and I do not mean to single out originalists. Again, as Kalt and other posters also imply, it is extremely common in constitutional cases for all concerned to start with the answer that they want and reason backwards from there.
6.6.2007 2:03pm
jimbino (mail):
Maviva,

If they ever stoop to offering a Nobel (or any prize, for that matter) for lawyering, we can begin to make a comparison. Scientists and mathematicians, by virtue of their not having shunned hard subjects in school, usually emerge better prepared in EVERYTHING than do the English majors.
6.6.2007 2:07pm
arthur (mail):
Sandwiches present an Establishment Clause issue relating to the fundamental principal of the Separation of Peanut Butter and Jelly.
6.6.2007 2:22pm
T.:
May not be exactly what you're looking for, but I strongly recommend Eric Lurio's Cartoon Guide to the Constitution.
6.6.2007 2:22pm
Brian Kalt (mail):
TDP,
Yeah, it is strained--a feeble attempt at hyperbolic levity. In any case, I probably should have said "seemingly unaware that if their argument were right," or better yet just left the exams out of it. The main thing is to help those overwhelmed Canadians, engineers, and fine art majors people who have gotten through their schooling to this point without learning this stuff, and who don't have time to do the reading from two good 4-credit survey courses in history and political science to prepare themselves adequately for my 2-credit one.

JRL,
No F's this year--the threshold is pretty high, especially given that falling below a 2.0 overall means you flunk out here. My example of an F answer is from a Torts class I taught a few years ago; on a five-minute question about a fine point of proximate cause, the student's entire response (grammar and spelling cleaned up) was "proximate cause is what the police need to search your house." If it makes me say "was this person even in my class?", that's an F. My Con law I students have their foibles, but it is very rare that one of them goes through the semester without picking up a few things.

Of the comments so far, I was most struck by arbitraryaardvark writing the answer may be "to read a newspaper daily, discuss it at the dinner table, and start by age 10." Unfortunately, I think that that is the answer, which means that there isn't much I can do at this point for my students. My kids, on the other hand . . .
6.6.2007 2:24pm
Cornellian (mail):
Although I have yet to read it, I've heard good things about "People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present" by Howard Zinn - although I know some people can't stand Zinn.

As a rule, I tend to avoid any book with a title like "People's History." I have the Johnson book but haven't got around to reading it. Downside of the Johnson book is it's too big to carry it around so you aren't likely to have it with you during reading-appropriate downtime, like waiting in airports and doctors' offices.
6.6.2007 2:28pm
dearieme:
Canadians in particular might enjoy "Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolutionary War" by Hugh Bicheno.
6.6.2007 2:33pm
Ben Pollitzer (mail):
Zinn is fairly far left, but the title of his book is misleading, it's not nearly the polemic "the peoples history" might make it sound to be.


Personally I took several "pre-law" classes in undergrad, including a two semester segment on constitutional law, that was in retrospect, a bit like "law school lite" combined with Civics and a political science course.


We talked about most of the major doctrines in constitutional law (albiet not at nearly the depth they're covered in law school) but we also had a several week unit on the history of supreme court Jurisprudence, and a unit on the nomination process for Supreme Court justices. (actually it was during the Roberts confirmation hearings)


Getting back to Zinn, it's a good basic history text, as are many of the other titles that were mentioned. But thinking as a student, if a professor put "Suggested Reading: Howard Zinn "A Peoples's History of the United States" and then I went and saw the book? I probably wouldn't read it.


Despite editorial gushing about Zinn's prose, A peoples history is still 770 some pages of a history textbook, and I was a history major. It's better than many, but that doesn't make it the best.


If I were to suggest something that would be a short, but useful overview on American History that's actually likely to be read? I'd probably suggest coming up with a bit of a compilation source.

Start with the stuff that you have to study to take the citizenship exam. Someone linked it above if I recall. Copy in relevant pieces of, (or entire sections of) the Federalist Papers. Maybe some selected sections from some history books.

You could probably get a general overview of the roots of American government in 100 or 150 pages, and that's much more likely to be read than 700
6.6.2007 2:44pm
A.S.:
May not be exactly what you're looking for, but I strongly recommend Eric Lurio's Cartoon Guide to the Constitution.

Heh. I was going to recommend Schoolhouse Rock. You've got succinct histories of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and Manifest Destiny, and of course you got discussions of the electoral college, separation of powers, and the process by which a bill becomes a law. What else do you need?
6.6.2007 2:48pm
K:
The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch, published by Harper Collins.

It isn't a guide to ConLaw.

It consists of perhaps 200 essays - mostly relating to political issues - published during roughly 250 years of American development.

It is inexpensive and easy to carry and read on the go. I prefer seeing source material when possible. It is what people were saying and thinking then. It is not what we now hold they should have thought, or must of thought.

In anthologies you limit the historians personal views. No matter how objective the historian tries to be, his mind and education is of his time. Certainly every anthology editor applies some filter but you do get the whole essay not excerpts.
6.6.2007 2:51pm
Witness (mail):
jimbino:

If they ever stoop to offering a Nobel (or any prize, for that matter) for lawyering, we can begin to make a comparison. Scientists and mathematicians, by virtue of their not having shunned hard subjects in school, usually emerge better prepared in EVERYTHING than do the English majors.

So because they offer a Nobel Prize in science and math categories, those who study those subjects are somehow intellectually/academically superior to English majors? Last time I checked, they also offer a Nobel Prize in literature, and I'm guessing there are a few more English majors who have taken that prize home than math/science guys.

I think I fundamentally agree with your premise that math and science are tougher disciplines (though it's foolish to say that any group is better prepared for "EVERYTHING" than another group), but your use of the Nobel Prize is a non-starter. It also reveals that you probably didn't gain as much "competence in the humanities and fine arts" as you seem to think you have. And it certainly didn't make you any better at crafting a logical argument to support your point.
6.6.2007 3:54pm
KevinM:
What's wrong with you people? Everything you need to know is in "How a Bill Becomes a Law" (Schoolhouse Rock)
(Congressman: He signed you, Bill! Now you're a law! Bill: Oh yes!...etc.)
6.6.2007 3:55pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
My niece just finished her 1st year at law school. They taught Con Law in the 1st year!! A cum laude graduate from a fine liberal arts school -- &her lawyer Dad (my bro) had to give her the same tutorials.

So what. Anyone who goes to law school and doesn't have the minimum interest in American history, government, law and politics that they haven't learned what they need to know by themselves doesn't belong in law school. Come on people, if you are want to go to law school, you should have an in interest in the law and the way the legal system and our democracy is run. That means you shouldn't need to be cramming the summer before law school to figure out who your congressman is, how exactly the constitution is amended or that senators were not always directly elected. I don't care what the hell your undergraduate degree was in. These are things you can figure out by yourself by reading, surfing the web, or even surfing watching TV. Your daddy doesn't need to teach you. And even if you are an engineering major, you still have to take general education requirements undergrad.

And I was criticized for picking on law students yesterday. Sheesh.
6.6.2007 4:04pm
Brian Kalt (mail):
Schoolhouse Rock would get me most of the way there, but much of it is dated and un-PC (see Elbow Room, for instance) and I'd need to balance it out with some Zinn/Simpsons treatment (like this).
6.6.2007 4:05pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
students surfing the Internet in class is fodder for another thread or two).

You know there is a real easy solution to this. Simply ban laptops in the classroom.
6.6.2007 4:08pm
ATRGeek:
I spent significant time as both a hard science major and a humanities major in college. I can attest that one thing the hard science majors typically did not emerge better prepared at was chatting up members of the opposite sex at cocktail parties. Which, come to think of it, is probably not irrelevant to success in the law.

Incidentally, in part that was simply because the required hard science classes were often in the morning, and the required humanities classes were usually in the afternoon. I'm not sure why the hard science classes were more incompatible with an active college social life than the humanities classes (in fact, that raises an interesting chicken-and-egg problem).

Of course, the ludicrous gender imbalance in the hard science in question wasn't helping (either way--the men had few opportunities to try their skills, and the women didn't even need to put up an effort). And I am sure the role-playing games were not helping either.

And again, lest I am accused of stereotyping without basis--I lived this world for a couple years, so I know of what I speak.
6.6.2007 4:20pm
Chicago:
J.F. Why should people who want to become corporate lawyers (but who have to take con law because it's a requirement) have such a strong interest in "American history, government, law and politics"? It seems you are envisioning a particular sort of law student, not the only (or necessarily even the best) type.
6.6.2007 4:20pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
The issue is usually with students who make "bad=unconstitutional" arguments, unaware not just of the actual rules but also of the implications of that argument for analogous laws that they don't seem to realize exist.
Let me guess: most of these people are future clerks for the Ninth Circuit.
6.6.2007 4:23pm
whackjobbbb:
I'll endorse jimbino's statement... all of it.


Nellie got it right. What distinguishes the hard science and math major from the typical law student is that he has taken the hardest classes available, has probably mastered a foreign language and has gained competence in the humanities and fine arts.

Another thing that distinguishes him is that he usually has better things to do than pursue the study of law: witness the dearth of math and hard science majors in the typical law school class. Mine at UT Austin had 5 out of 140.

Witness also the ignorance of math and science that characterizes the typical lawyer and almost every judge.



I've always found lawyers thick and reptilian-brained, but maybe I've just run with a dumb crowd. In any event, this here engineer didn't need remedial training in current events, history, language... to go forward in academics. And I do find it somewhat shocking, the level of technical ignorance in the legal profession.

Forget the LSAT... I'd give 'em a real test... and it'd include all of these other things.
6.6.2007 4:24pm
CLS:
A short book would be helpful, even for those of us who had a course in HS and a few history courses in college. The preparation needed for Con Law I as a 1L is beyond what many of us have learned in previous education (fine arts, engineers, and pre-law students alike). And even with extensive studying and attempts to make this material clear, it can be confusing and frustrating in application to hypotheticals. If that weren't the case, the Supreme Court wouldn't release such terribly reasoned and contradictory decisions at times (of course this is my opinion, take it for what it's worth).

While it may take time to go slower and more in depth, I believe it would be worth it to be more thorough at the expense of going into certain details (yes, this has downfalls of it's own). Maybe Con Law I needs an entire year if it is that difficult to cover including the background. It sure couldn't hurt our understanding of the system. And I will second the notion that not all legal students will use Con Law in their future endeavors to a vast degree.
6.6.2007 4:51pm
Harriet Miers' Law Partner:

Why should people who want to become corporate lawyers (but who have to take con law because it's a requirement) have such a strong interest in "American history, government, law and politics"? It seems you are envisioning a particular sort of law student, not the only (or necessarily even the best) type.


Ladies and gentlemen, this is why the Republic is in trouble.
6.6.2007 4:56pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Con Law is apparently beyond a lot of con law professors. Just look at some of the posts by Ann Althouse.
6.6.2007 4:59pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I can attest that one thing the hard science majors typically did not emerge better prepared at was chatting up members of the opposite sex at cocktail parties.

Speak for yourself. As a chemistry major who had a part time job in the chemistry stock room, I had access to poorly accounted stocks of lab grade 95% ethanol (it came in 5 gallon cans, and was not denatured) and dry ice. We could throw some wicked parties.
6.6.2007 5:04pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I'll put in a word for Eric Foner's works, including:

The Reader's Companion to American History (with John A. Garraty, 1991); The Story of American Freedom (1998); and his survey textbook of American history, Give Me Liberty! An American History and a companion volume of documents, Voices of Freedom (2004). appeared in 2004.

Beyond that, Prof. Kalt, I thought your reference to a "sandwich" was obvious comic hyperbole, and a good line at that.
6.6.2007 5:18pm
Barbara Skolaut (mail):
"Basics of American Government and History"

If you find such a book, send one to every member of Congress. They certainly need it.
6.6.2007 5:23pm
theobromophile (www):

Incidentally, in part that was simply because the required hard science classes were often in the morning,


Try 7:40 am on Monday mornings, senior year, for a required course. Our professor overslept a few times.

Instead of having students read a single book that would give them an overview of American history, why not "assign" relevant parts of American history as the course progresses? For example, the Constitution ought to be read in the light of the Articles of Confederation and the Federalist Papers, neither of which is particularly pertinent to the Civil Rights Act.
6.6.2007 5:27pm
Suzanna Sherry (mail):
Can't resist pointing out a factual error: Witness says that "because they offer a Nobel Prize in science and math categories, . . ." There is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Maybe there should be, but there isn't.
6.6.2007 5:28pm
Elliot123 (mail):
The law students may lack the time, but prior to embarking on a survey of American history, I would recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. It provides a snapshot of the Western Hemisphere the European settlers found when they arrived, and explores the history of the various indiginous peoples who shaped it. It's a very interesting context that is missing from any other American history I have read.
6.6.2007 5:35pm
Witness (mail):
Suzanna,

It was probably poor word choice, but by "math and science categories," I meant disciplines that primarily involve math and science, like Physics and Chemistry. I know there's no Nobel Prize in Math. There's also no Nobel Prize in Science.
6.6.2007 5:43pm
ATRGeek:
David M. Nieporent,

Again, in my experience it would be inaccurate to say that the "bad=unconstitutional" kind of thinking is associated with any particular constitutional or political philosophy (insofar as that is what you were suggesting with your Ninth Circuit remark). Of course, one would also hope that future clerks of all sorts were usually not in this category. And, in fact, that was also my experience of future clerks, whether of the Ninth Circuit or Fourth Circuit persuasion.

J. F. Thomas,

I am sure you did throw some fun parties, but throwing the party and chatting up any members of the opposite sex who attend the party are two different things. In general, I never claimed that the hard science folks did not have their own brand of fun. That was part of the problem, in fact: their idea of fun was usually a very distinctive brand.

That said, obviously there will be exceptions, and I am sure every hard science program has its Don Juans and (and, more rarely, Dona Juanas). But again, I have been there, my friend, and seen the truth, so it is going to be difficult to BS me.
6.6.2007 6:00pm
Eliza (mail):
Zinn's book is intended as a rebuttal to the views of most historians, so he only includes evidence that contradicts their views. It would be dishonest if it was billed as an attempt to present a comprehensive view, but Zinn himself isn't doing that. He assumes everyone understands he is only giving the "other side of the story." However, if you recommended him to a student as a complete history it's unlikely they would be sophisticated enough to understand that.

Paul Johnson's A history of the American People is what you're looking for. He's got an eye for the obscure fascinating detail, which is why it is so long. But the advantage is that Johnson is a Briton writing for a foreign audience. And for him, the important thing about American history is not the narrative, but the founding principles embodied in the Constitution and how they stand the test of time. So the Constitution and even the Supreme Court and its decisions are discussed throughout.

Here's how he puts it.


No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind....American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them? All nations are born in war conquest and crime, usually concealed by the obscurity of a distant past. The United States, from its earliest colonial times, won its title deeds in the full blaze of recorded history, and the stains on them are there for all to see and censure: the dispossession of an indigenous people, and the securing of self-sufficiency through the sweat and pain of an enslaved race. In the judgmental scales of history such grievous wrongs must be balanced by the erection of a society dedicated to justice and fairness. Has the United States done this? Has it expiated its organic sins?

The second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism--the desire to build the perfect community--be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all? Have the Americans got the mixture right? Have they forged a nation where righteousness has the edge over needful self-interest?

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly "City on a Hill," but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be a model for the entire planet. Have they made good on their audacious claims?
6.6.2007 6:52pm
whackjobbbb:

The law students may lack the time, but prior to embarking on a survey of American history, I would recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. It provides a snapshot of the Western Hemisphere the European settlers found when they arrived, and explores the history of the various indiginous peoples who shaped it. It's a very interesting context that is missing from any other American history I have read.


Elliot, Mann did write an interesting and unique book there, and yes it presents a rare point of view. It got cracked pretty hard here and there, so it's one of those you might still be wary of, if you're looking for fixed-point history.
6.6.2007 7:39pm
Cornellian (mail):
Have they forged a nation where righteousness has the edge over needful self-interest?

Sadly, it would probably be more accurate to describe us (or at least our politics) as a place where self-righteousness has the edge over rational self-interest.
6.6.2007 7:40pm
happylee:
First, stay away from any textbook published after 1929.

If the students have time and desire an in-depth review of this humble country's history, I recommend Murray N. Rothbard's "Conceived in Liberty."

If they prefer a short, quick and useful guide, try Thomas Woods "Politically Incorrect Guide to American Histroy."

And for a more lively and yet short read, try Thomas DiLorenzo, "How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold History of Our Country, from the Pilgrims to the Present."
6.6.2007 8:06pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
First, stay away from any textbook published after 1929.

Why, are you afraid that entering law students might be exposed to radical ideas like Northern Europeans are not the most genetically advanced race on the face of the earth?
6.6.2007 8:14pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
It got cracked pretty hard here and there, so it's one of those you might still be wary of, if you're looking for fixed-point history.

Yeah, by those who cling to the fantasy that the Americas were practically empty continents populated by savages in order to try and diminish to true extent of the depopulation and destruction of complex and advanced cultures that occurred between 1500 and 1700.
6.6.2007 8:18pm
ALB (mail):
This isn't a recommendation, but sympathy with Professor Kalt's situation.

In my crim law class, as we were discussing the doctrine of justification and political necessity, the prof asked one of my classmates a question about system-wide political failure. Essentially, he asked "could you raise that justification if you were in Birmingham in the late 1950s?"

It was very clear that she had no idea why the prof might have chosen that city and that time frame.
6.6.2007 8:42pm
Mark Field (mail):
I wanted to add to the recommendations of Eric Foner and suggest his Reconstruction as another book well worth reading.

Following up on my promise earlier today, two more good choices for the post-Reconstruction Era would be Calhoun's "Conceiving the New Republic" and Garrett Epps' "Democracy Reborn".
6.6.2007 8:45pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):


First, stay away from any textbook published after 1929.


Why, are you afraid that entering law students might be exposed to radical ideas like Northern Europeans are not the most genetically advanced race on the face of the earth?
You might try actually reading some of the history textbooks published before 1929 before making a J.F. Thomas of yourself in public. Yes, you can find books that promote that viewpoint (for example, the biology textbook the ACLU was defending in the Scopes Trial), but there are plenty of textbooks that don't support or assume Social Darwinist crap.
6.6.2007 9:05pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
For a one semester Constitutional History class I taught a few years back, I used Michael Les Benedict, The Blessings of Liberty: A Concise History of the Constitution of the United States. Howard Zinn it isn't, but neither is it A Patriot's History of the United States. For a general overview that is still reasonably short, I used Winthrop Jordan's The United States: Fourth Brief Edition for a one semester American history survey class. (Yes, a one semester American history survey class makes no sense. But it was in the catalog, and that is what I was supposed to teach.)
6.6.2007 9:11pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

I wanted to add to the recommendations of Eric Foner and suggest his Reconstruction as another book well worth reading.
Well worth reading, but it isn't the short overview that was requested.
6.6.2007 9:12pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Yeah, by those who cling to the fantasy that the Americas were practically empty continents populated by savages in order to try and diminish to true extent of the depopulation and destruction of complex and advanced cultures that occurred between 1500 and 1700.
A little ignorance is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

The attempts to reimagine the Americas as more heavily populated than Europe in 1500 are very entertaining, but the evidence is lacking.

Now, in 1200 the American population might have been larger than it was in 1492. The Mound Builder civilization must have had a big population to build these structures, but it was gone by the time the first whites reached the area. My guess is that its decline--like that of the Anasazi around the same time--was driven by the climate change of the Little Ice Age.
6.6.2007 9:17pm
PJens:
I am a lay person and have a book I found extremely helpful understanding American Law. It is: Fundamentals of American Law , by NY University School of Law. Oxford Press, ISBN 0-19-8760405-7.
6.6.2007 9:19pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

This isn't a recommendation, but sympathy with Professor Kalt's situation.

In my crim law class, as we were discussing the doctrine of justification and political necessity, the prof asked one of my classmates a question about system-wide political failure. Essentially, he asked "could you raise that justification if you were in Birmingham in the late 1950s?"

It was very clear that she had no idea why the prof might have chosen that city and that time frame.
A friend from school (much younger than me--he was a traditional age college student, and I was re-entry) graduated with a B.A. in Political Science. He knew...vaguely...about the Holocaust. He had no awareness of the Gulag Archipelago. He had never read 1984, and was utterly ignorant of its points. Admittedly, we went to a left-wing dominated university, so I can see why they might have avoided painful topics like the 20th century!
6.6.2007 9:23pm
QuintCarte (mail):
My only comment on many of these recommendations is that although they are good sources, they are also pretty voluminous to be read as background reading by student with a full course load.

I'd recommend looking for a good High School Civics text book. These contain more information than one might think, and can be read through in a fraction of the time as some of the more serious tomes mentioned here.
6.6.2007 10:18pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The attempts to reimagine the Americas as more heavily populated than Europe in 1500 are very entertaining, but the evidence is lacking.

The evidence is not lacking. It is in European accounts of the population densities encountered in the initial contact. What is lacking is an acknowledgment that European diseases could cause the kind of mortality rates (up to 95%) that would have devastated the populations to the extent that by the second wave of exploration the continent was almost entirely depopulated.

Admittedly, we went to a left-wing dominated university, so I can see why they might have avoided painful topics like the 20th century!

Well that anyone who majored in Political Science never read 1984 is just sad. I don't see how going to a "left-wing dominated" university has anything to do with it. I doubt that you actually went to a "left-wing dominated" university. Real hard-core left-wingers (actual Marxists) revel in the twentieth century. After all, it is their century, at least the first half of it. They defeated capitalism in WWI and fascism in WWII. Even in capitalist countries, they made great advances in promoting worker rights.
6.6.2007 10:19pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Yes, you can find books that promote that viewpoint (for example, the biology textbook the ACLU was defending in the Scopes Trial), but there are plenty of textbooks that don't support or assume Social Darwinist crap.

Umm, do you happen to know what the immigration policy of this country was from the mid-twenties until 1965? Regardless of "Social Darwinist crap", look at how this country treated the American Indian in the 19th century and how that is handled in your precious pre-1929 textbooks.
6.6.2007 10:28pm
whackjobbbb:
J.F. Thomas, don't know how populous they were (You're right, that's one of the thihgs they crack Mann on), but kinda hard to call them "complex and advanced cultures", isn't it?
6.6.2007 11:05pm
Narnia:
Prof. Kalt,

Has it not occurred to you, following your "accidentally" published question, that maybe your disrespectful, condescending comments would make it back to your students? Has it also not occurred to you that maybe their general lack of knowledge may reflect poorly on your skills as a teacher? Maybe this is precisely why you are so perturbed?

Also- Your apology to your students on the TWEN site was seriously lacking- a bit cowardly to post it only to remove the post an hour later.
6.6.2007 11:57pm
Angry Beaver:
Perhaps next time you should realize that your comments have a far bigger reach than you ever thought. Your "god-awful" and "sub-par" characterizations are extremely unprofessional. If you wanted opinions about good books to read in order to brush up on Constitutional History, then why not just ask that? It was absolutely unnecessary to include the comments about the exams in a post on a website that can be read throughout the entire world.
6.7.2007 12:23am
ATRGeek:
whackjobbbb,

Why do you think it would be hard to call the native cultures in the Americas "complex and advanced"? For example, that is surely a fair description of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures, and likely a fair description of the Mississipian culture also known as the "mound builders"). Of course, I guess it depends on your definitions, but once you start living in cities, have extended political arrangements, are using metal tools, and so forth, you are talking about pretty complex and advanced cultures by historic standards.
6.7.2007 1:10am
Brian Kalt (mail):
Angry Beaver,
You are absolutely right--as I said in my most recent comment above, I should have "just left the exams out of it."

Narnia,
It absolutely occurred to me at that too-late point, and I feel awful about it. I am in the (lengthy) process of drafting an email apology to the class; the TWEN posting that I put up was inadequate both in content and in reach, and that is why I removed it in favor of drafting a longer email.

In any case, I assume that both of you are in my class. I hope that my email apology will be satisfactory to you, but if it is not and you wish to complain further to me, I hope that you consider talking to me directly. As you rightly point out, AB, "a website that can be read throughout the whole world" is probably not the most productive place to work through these things.
6.7.2007 1:22am
ATRGeek:
By the way, I am not sure what Clayton Cramer is claiming about Mississipian culture. De Soto reports encountering native peoples living in fortified cities (this is the 16th century, of course), and my understanding is that it was only gradually after this time that disease and the breakdown of social order finally brought the "mound building" culture to an end.
6.7.2007 1:23am
ATRGeek:
Sorry for the serial post, but a quick sense of the timeline might be helpful.

Ponce de Leon went to Florida in 1513. De Soto's expedition was from 1539-42. The failed Roanoke Colony was founded in 1584. Jamestown was founded in 1607, and the Pilgrims landed in 1620. The Pequot War (Massachusetts) was in 1637, and the Second Powahatan War (Virginia) was in 1644-46. Philadelphia was founded in 1682. Ocean Springs was founded in 1699. Fort Rosalie (later Natchez) was founded in 1716. New Orleans was founded in 1718. The Natchez War was in 1729. Fort Duquesne (later Pittsburgh) was built in 1754. Lewis and Clark's expedition was in 1804-06.

So, there was actually quite a long period of time between the first encounters between Missippian culture and Europeans and the serious colonization and exploration of the Mississipian region.
6.7.2007 2:13am
ATRGeek:
Sorry, one more and I promise I am done:

I forgot to include Joara/Cuenca in my timeline. Joara was a sizeable Mississipian city in what is now western North Carolina. The Spanish arrived in 1567, attempting to move inland from Santa Elena (today Parris Island, South Carolina). They renamed Joara as Cuenca, established a fort (Fort San Juan), and eventually established a few other forts in the area. Sometime in late 1567 or early 1568, the native population wiped out the Spanish garrisons and the Spanish ended this effort to colonize inland. But disease, social disorder, and war with other native populations led to Joara being abandoned by the time Scots-Irish and German settlers arrived in the area (in the late 17th and 18th centuries).

So, that is a little microcosm of the overall picture with respect to Europeans and Mississippian culture (early contact, an extended period in which disease and other factors cause depopulation, and then the arrival of permanent settlers).
6.7.2007 2:52am
Andrew Okun:
Many excellent recommendations here. After they have that basic grounding in civics ... 3 branches, bill of rights, one man one vote ... and they are ready for intermediate reading, I would suggest two books:

"Plunkett of Tammany Hall" but George Washington Plunkett and
"The Power Broker" by Robert Caro. The latter's account of the near-building of the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge is worth the cover price alone. Between the two, I know, a little NY-centered, but I'm sure there are some similar titles from elsewhere in the country.
6.7.2007 3:32am
TxTony:
maybe your school should take more mature students, and interview them before accepting them, to find out whether they have just "passed through the system." i see your school is in the big ten. if interviews, either in person or by phone, are deemed important for Northwestern Law, why are they not good enough for Michigan State?

also, you are probably right. your kids probably needed a kick in the rear. im glad you didnt back down from your claims, but recognized a public damning was probably not the move. if your kids cannot accept the truth, that they were significantly below the level of general knowledge that past students had, and need to step up, how will they be as attorneys? how will they compete with the Northwesterns? and how will you raise continue to raise the bar at MSU Law?

perhaps the students need to get a lot tougher, or should consider going to find other work.
6.7.2007 10:49am
Brian Kalt (mail):
TxTony,
I'd like to stand up for my students here. I was not suggesting that they (or, more precisely, the subset I was talking about) "passed through the system." You can be successful in many fields without taking a survey course in American history or government. I was really just looking for a short source that students could read in a few hours, to prepare them for this one aspect of this one class. I meant what I said above--I am not talking about anything that should keep someone out of law school.

Moreover:

1) Based on what I know from professors at other schools, including very highly ranked ones, I did not and do not think that these history/civics-needing students are unusual in this regard. Eugene, at UCLA, apparently thought that it was a concern that was broadly felt enough to make it worth posting. I have gotten emails that confirm my view on that.

2) Phone interviews are very unusual, for a reason. I rarely if ever have a student about whom I think, "y'know, if I'd had a phone interview with this person, I would have done my damnedest to keep this kid out of here."

3) The level of general knowledge that my students have is not "significantly below the level of general knowledge that past students had." Indeed, as I said in one comment, the general-knowledge issue is not new. Besides, I have been here seven years, and the credentials and performance of our students has improved dramatically. A few years ago, we even adjusted the grading curve upward for that very reason, and that reason alone. MSU students can hold their own in the Big Ten.

Yes, there is a lack of general knowledge among some of "these kids today," but it is not limited to MSU. They will be fine lawyers, even if they would be still better if they read this. If I thought otherwise about my students, it would be me "consider[ing] going to find other work."
6.7.2007 11:37am
whackjobbbb:
Yeah, Kalt, don't be so quick to back down from your frustration with those kids. If that's what you're seeing... let it out... no need to go all PC on us. And then, take the steps to see that incoming students have the knowledge you see lacking (I see a lot more than that, but this'd be a good start at least).

J.F. Thomas, I guess I was referencing the limitations in written language and technological advances. The people here, however many they were or were not before diseases took 'em out, didn't leave much of a record on that score, certainly none to match what I can place my hands on originating in many other parts of the world in this same era and even earlier. I'll bow to your experience on this, but that's my perception anyways.
6.7.2007 11:37am
Url of Sandwich (mail) (www):
To give some meat for those consumed with the hunger for more substance on the constitutionality of sandwiches.

In this case —Prince William County, Virginia— Ham Sandwich is perfectly legal, but may become unconstitutional after the election.

Uh Clem said, ". . if it's a ham sandwich, any decent DA can get the grand jury to indict it."

That may be true, but in a reverse of that, Ham Sandwich says, "He can do the job just as well as the current one". He claims that a ham sandwich could have just as adeptly not prosecuted 'DC Sniper' triggerman John Lee Malvo, and just as easily won a death penalty conviction for his accomplice, John Allen Muhammad.

In another case of nationwide interest, the now-serving attorney couldn't dish up felony indictments for sliced salami; where even a ham sandwich could have obtained a conviction.
6.7.2007 1:32pm
rarango (mail):
Alexis DeTocqueville's DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA would seem like a good choice.
6.7.2007 1:39pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The people here, however many they were or were not before diseases took 'em out, didn't leave much of a record on that score, certainly none to match what I can place my hands on originating in many other parts of the world in this same era and even earlier.

Well, that's because the Spanish had an explicit policy of destroying all evidence of the advanced state of the societies of central and south America, including destroying all written records. Only now are scientists beginning to realize that the Inca, who it was assumed never developed writing, may have developed a form of writing that was unique in the world.

It is true that North American Indians did not leave written records, but initial attempts to settle South Eastern North America and the Mississippi valley in the 16th century were stymied by large populations of hostile Indians settled in large towns. Fifty to a hundred years later, the second wave of (mostly French and English) explorers found a vast wilderness sparsely populated by widely scattered bands of nomadic hunters. They discounted the Spanish accounts of a heavily populated continent as hyperbole and exaggeration. In truth, the Spanish with their herds of disease carrying pigs, had introduced devastating plagues that had wiped out up to 95% of the native population. The same thing happened in the northeast where introduced diseases turned New England from a densely populated agrarian society that could prevent European settlement in 1600 to a severely depopulated region in 1620 where the Pilgrims were able to make peace with the local Indians (and eventually exterminate them almost completely).
6.7.2007 1:44pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
J.F. Thomas, I guess I was referencing the limitations in written language and technological advances.

As for technological advances. The North Americans' agricultural practices were certainly superior to those of the Europeans. The average American was certainly healthier (prior to the introduction of European diseases) and better fed than the average European. Much of this had to do with the Indians' lack of domesticated animals. Domestic animals, especially pigs, are responsible for most of the really nasty diseases that have devastated mankind through the ages. But the Europeans had also exhausted most of the cropland in Europe because of their unsound agricultural practices, leading to an almost constant state of famine and poor crop yields. Native Americans had a much wider diet and practiced much better crop diversification practices than the Europeans.

While the Indians lagged in metal working (except for precious metal smelting), their stonework was second to none and their expertise and use textiles was well ahead of the Europeans. True, even though they knew of the wheel, they never applied it to practical use. Then again, if you don't have heavy draft animals, wheeled carts are really of limited use.
6.7.2007 1:56pm
ATRGeek:
In addition to the problem of deliberate destruction by the Spaniards, one of the other reasons that we do not know as much about Mississippian culture as we would like is that many US farms, towns, and cities were basically built on top of Mississippian sites.

Also, up until about the end of the 19th Century, there was a widespread myth that the native North Americans had not built the mounds. So, there was an unfortunate failure to investigate and preserve whatever unique information could have been gained before that myth was dismissed (including, of course, actually talking to native North Americans).
6.7.2007 3:05pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Andrew, yes, Plunkett. And even bored students will enjoy reading that.

I was taught HOW the system works, but I didn't understand WHY it works until I read two little books, both under 200 pages:

Charles S. Sydnor, 'American Revolutionaries in the Making'

S.B. Chrimes, 'English Constitutional History'

Subtext of this thread: many (most?) students don't know a damn about anybody's history. Too true. Best one-volume intro I know is Hugh Thomas, published as 'A History of the World' and several other titles, out of print last time I checked.
6.7.2007 6:14pm