As promised… Here is a curriculum for introducing middle school-aged kids to topics in law and politics. (I’m planning to work through this material with our daughter next year.) It starts off with a general overview of political systems and how they have evolved from ancient times. It then gets into a discussion of how our laws are made and how our justice system functions. To make it interesting for kids, I include a digression on forensic science as it relates to criminal law.
At the end, I provide a list of movies that tackle problems in the justice system. As I said in my last post, I am not of the variety of homeschoolers that is interested in sheltering my kid from mature topics, and this curriculum definitely ventures into some dark territory. I’m not sure what a sterile discussion of how governments fail or how the legal system can be manipulated would look like, however. Countries have horrific dictators. People get falsely accused of rape. Alas, if you are of the softer persuasion, you can stop reading right here.
Another heads-up: These books explain politics from all sides. There are explanations, for example, of some “woke” terminology, like what intersectionality means. If you are triggered by reading points of view you disagree with, this is likewise not for you. I chose them because (1) I think these are fairly balanced resources, and (2) the authors are gifted at putting big ideas in accessible language. You can’t teach a child to be persuasive in their own expression without teaching them how to see problems from all sides. Ditto with the movie list. I am personally fine with executing mass murderers and child predators, for example, but I think it is useful to listen to people who are not. Skepticism is good thing.
Textbooks and Other Educational Resources
Understanding Politics and Government (Usborne)
Law for Beginners (Usborne)
Forensic Science (Alex Frith)
Week 1 – Introduction to Politics
Concepts to understand – political system, education policy, foreign policy, health and welfare policy, economic policy, cultural investments, transportation and infrastructure policy, housing policy, law and order, legitimate versus illegitimate government
Discussion – What is the difference between power and authority? What are some examples from current events where a society voluntarily or involuntarily changed from one political system to another? See if you can find examples where that decision was made by the people being governed and examples where the people being governed had a political system forced upon them.
Week 2 – All Kinds of Governments
Concepts to understand – democracy, Athenian democracy (Boule and Ecclesia), Roman Republic (patricians versus plebians, Consuls, the Senate, Tribunes), checks and balances, dictator, provinces, China (meritocracy, civil service, nepotism), monarchy, feudalism, absolutism, Founding Fathers, constitution, parliament, Bill of Rights, direct versus representative democracy
Discussion – Is it possible to have a direct democracy with a large population, or is representative democracy inevitable? How might technology create opportunities for direct democracy that did not exist historically? Even if it is possible, is it still desirable to take a vote en masse on every topic?
Week 3 – Political Systems
Concepts to understand – state, authoritarian, totalitarian, military junta, theocracy, fascism, communism, Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, class war, empire, colonies and dependencies, direct rule, indirect rule, settler rule, referendum, majority, executive branch (mayor / governor / president), legislative branch (council / legislature / Congress), judicial branch, Supreme Court, Chief Justice, democracy in the United Kingdom, bureaucracy, federalism, treaties, the United Nations, delegate, Security Council, sanctions, the European Union, the Arab League, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the African Union, ambassadors, embassy, anarchy, Confucius, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Paine, Hannah Arendt
Discussion – What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a strong central government? Is it possible to undo an abusive central government without violence? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a weak central government?
Week 4 – Elections and Voting
Concepts to understand – candidate, running for election, political party, campaign, policies, taking office, swing voter, single-issue voter, common right-wing ideas, common left-wing ideas, electoral register, citizen, suffrage, racism and voting rights, election fraud, vote-rigging, secret ballots, election monitors, proportional representation, majority versus plurality, seats, threshold, minority governments, coalition
Discussion – How is the American Congress different from parliaments around the world in terms of who wields control after elections? Do you think this is better or worse? Do systems with more than one political party function better than our two-party system?
Discussion – Do you think our government has necessarily become fairer as more people have been allowed to vote? It is possible to have a more expansive voter base but still have the nature of power remain the same? For example, more people can vote, but power still remains in the hands of the extremely wealthy and socially connected. Can campaign finance and barriers to entry be used to override a changing voter base? Is it fair to limit how much money people can spend trying to influence the outcome of an election?
Week 5 – Political Change
Concepts to understand – pressure groups, interest groups, cause groups, tactics of pressure groups, lobbying, anti-democratic tactics, demonstrations and protests, movement, march, reform, revolution
Discussion – How are lobbyists and special interests portrayed in the media and popular culture? Are they necessarily bad-faith actors in government? Do you think it is ethical to have bills drafted by people who have not been elected to serve in government? Do you think it is ethical for representatives to offer legislation when they do not fully understand the mechanics?
Week 6 – Political Ideologies
Concepts to understand – ideology, liberal, conservative, big government versus small government, capitalism, socialism, nationalism versus globalization, ethnic group, separatist
Discussion – Does nationalism inevitably contribute to violence? Is it possible to be defensive of national interests and self-government in constructive ways? Name representatives of both conservative and liberal ideologies that have advocated nationalist positions.
Week 7 – Big Questions
Concepts to understand – human rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, statelessness, international law, just versus unjust war, foreign aid, terrorism, reasons countries are rich or remain poor, justifications for imprisonment, freedom of expression versus censorship, role of the media in politics, sensationalism, bias, immigrants, refugees, feminism, under-representation and marginalization, corruption, environmentalism, debate
Discussion – How would you characterize “healthy” and “unhealthy” political discourse? Is it ever okay to censor or marginalize someone’s opinions or contributions to discourse? What does censorship say about the nature of government in a country? (Recall the earlier discussion about power versus authority. Does a legitimate government favor persuasion or force?)
Discussion – What is a “utopia”? Do you think a utopia is possible? What do people mean by “progress” if government is restricted by human nature? What is “tolerance”? Is it easier or more difficult to make progress in larger, more diverse populations?
Research project – What is “yellow journalism”? Give examples of yellow journalism throughout American history.
Week 8 – What is Law? Why Do We Need Laws?
Concepts to understand – law, sentence, right, contract, lawyer, judge, evidence, justice, moral versus immoral, guilt
Discussion – What is the difference between legality and justice? Is it possible to have an immoral law?
Week 9 – Criminal Law
Concepts to understand – crime, investigation, evidence, arrest, conditions for arrest, charging, prosecutor, district attorney, defendant, accused, bail hearing, remand, bail, plea hearing, trial, guilty verdict / conviction, sentencing hearing, not guilty verdict / acquittal, defense lawyer, witnesses, investigating judge, disclosure, opening argument / closing argument, guilty act versus guilty mind, probation, rehabilitation, compensation, appeal, reasons to appeal a verdict (mishandling of evidence / jury mistakes / errors by the judge / failings by defense lawyer), appeals court, questions of fact versus questions of law
Discussion – What are Miranda rights? (List them.) Why are police officers required to state them as they conduct arrests? Where do these rights come from? What are Brady disclosures? Where do these rules come from? Why are these things so important to our justice system?
Research project – What is a grand jury? New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler famously said that “a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich, if that’s what you wanted.” What role do grand juries play in our legal system? Why do you think they are necessary?
Week 10 – A Geektastic Hiatus to Talk about Forensic Science as It Relates to Criminal Law and Establishing Guilt
Concepts to understand – crime scene investigator, forensic scientist, coroner, expert witness
Read Forensic Science, “Science in the Courtroom” and “Written in Sweat”
Week 11 – Forensic Science, “Written in Blood” and “Secrets in the Cells”
Research project – Research the nonprofit Innocence Project and some of the people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence. How have developments in forensic science been used to counter racism, classism, and other issues of bias within the justice system?
Week 12 – Forensic Science, “The Talking Dead” and “Clues from Nature”
Research project – Read about the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee, which studies how human remains decompose.
Week 13 – Forensic Science, “The Little Things” and “Going Ballistic”
Research project – Research “ghost” guns. Do they actually pose a problem for identifying suspects in crimes?
Week 14 – Forensic Science, “Exploding Evidence” and “The Paper Trail”
Research project – Research a famous bombing incident (examples: The Boston Marathon, Oklahoma City, or churches during the Civil Rights Movement). What evidence led police to catch the people responsible?
Week 15 – Forensic Science, “Criminal Identity”
Research project – Research the interrogation techniques police use to extract a confession from a suspect or to get information from an unwilling witness. What is a false confession? Why might someone make a false confession? What kinds of laws and other considerations influence the ways police may or may not interrogate suspects? Why are lie-detector tests not admissible in court as evidence of guilt?
Research project – What is criminal profiling? Research the evolution of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit. Do you think criminal profiling is useful or not? Are there really psychological archetypes and patterns that criminals fit, or can a criminal be anyone? Can criminal profilers distract from identifying a person that is truly guilty by taking investigations in less fruitful directions? Have criminal psychologists ever pointed the finger at an innocent person? (Example: the Atlanta Olympics bombing)
Week 16 – Civil Law
Concepts to understand – tort, negligence, contract, compensation, family law, property rights, property law, intellectual property, mediation
Discussion / research project – What is a frivolous lawsuit? What is lawfare? How can civil law be used abusively or to harass political or ideological opponents? How can civil law be gamed for profit? What do politicians mean by “tort reform”? What social costs can frivolous lawsuits produce?
Week 17 – How is Law Made?
Concepts to understand – statute, legislation, codification, common law, religious law, customary law, judgment, assembly, chamber, amendment, constitutional law, conventions, Royal Prerogative, prime minister, chancellor, rule of law
Week 18 – Law Across Borders and Human Rights
Concepts to understand – United Nations International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, prisoners of war, Interpol, extradition
Research project – What were the Nuremberg Trials?
Week 19 – What is Justice?
Concepts to understand – equality before the law, different treatment, different burden, “missing” laws, the cost of a good defense and legal aid
Discussion / research project – What is civil disobedience? Research a personality who went to prison in an effort to change an unjust law.
Week 20 – Big Questions
Discussion / research project – Does prison work? Research rates of recidivism for different kinds of crimes. Is it possible for people to become trapped in lifestyles where committing crime is inevitable? How does branding someone as a felon impair their reintroduction to society? Does poverty necessarily drive crime?
Discussion / research project – What motivates some lawyers to defend people who are likely guilty? What motivates some lawyers to become public defenders? Interview a public defender or someone who works for legal aid.
Week 21 – Watch a trial
Week 22 – Tour a police station, interview a police officer
Here are some thought-provoking movies about our justice system to inspire debate. These are not being offered to advance any particular political narrative (you can watch something and respectfully disagree with it, after all), and all of them include mature themes.