Local teachers oversee discussion about U.S. Capitol insurrection with care

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

NORTHERN HILLS — “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”

That’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum address, which Sturgis Brown High School government teacher Stephanie Kaufman used in her class discussion about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

The address goes on to say: “… let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty.”

After reading a short section of that address, Kaufman then pointed back to the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness).

“I wanted to show them that this serves as the fabric that holds all Americans together and that we have to rededicate ourselves to the basic constitutional principles if the republic is to endure,” she said.

Constitutional principles were the center of discussions in civics and government classes across the Northern Hills on in the days following the riot.

Michael Kane, who teaches history at Belle Fourche High School, has a regular current events section in his class, during which his students were eager to talk about the events they watched unfold on the national stage.

“I explained to them that something like that hadn’t happened in a couple hundred years, and I asked them what they thought,” Kane said. “That’s how the discussion progressed. The kids did a really good job and they were pretty neutral. I typically don’t try to give the kids a point of view. I listen to them. Often they ask me what I think and I give them my opinion. I do always couch it with ‘this is my opinion.’ I give them as many facts as I can regarding historically what has gone on. We did talk about how peaceful protests are a great thing and provided by the Constitution. What started out as peaceful wound up being pretty unconstitutional.”

Teachers across the Northern Hills said they were very careful in their classroom discussions to set their personal political beliefs aside. Instead, their emphasis was on putting the insurrection in historical and Constitutional context, as well as teaching about the importance of the peaceful transfer of power.

“I talk to my students about events in our nation, but that is tricky,” said Spearfish High School history and government teacher Pat Gainey. “Politics has become so partisan that it can be difficult to have a civil conversation without offending someone’s sense of propriety. Everyone thinks their viewpoint is the right one. People need to understand that in a democracy everyone is supposed to get a say. Democracy is slow and inefficient, but it is designed to be so. Nazi Germany was highly efficient, not a lot of freedom though.”

Gainey said that in his classes he greatly emphasized the legitimacy of our institution of government, and that violence can never be the answer to problems, no matter how much people may think it is.

Lead-Deadwood High School history and government teacher Matt Campbell also said he was also careful to not take a position during his class discussion about the insurrection. Instead, he focused on encouraging civil discourse, and using multiple sources of information.

“I like to let students discuss their own ideas, although I will follow up with questions, play the devil’s advocate, or add context to a discussion,” he said. “I like to have students discuss these events civilly, without name calling or getting angry. My overarching goal is civil discourse. I want students to be able to discuss these events knowledgably and calmly, even with those they disagree.”

On the day after the insurrection, teachers said their students were upset about the incident. Some were scared and nervous. Others said they are simply tired of what they view as an overly dramatic political scene.

“They seem to be getting worn out on the drama of politics with one thing after another through this pandemic, and now all of this turmoil,” Kaufman said. “It isn’t that they don’t care, but they just can’t be overwhelmed by it all the time.”

In Lead-Deadwood, Campbell said, “There is a general sense that the country is deeply divided and that things are out of control.”

In Spearfish, Gainey said last week’s events at the capitol are not a huge topic of conversation, but there is some concern among youth.

“I think many are scared and nervous,” he said. “Mostly I spend my time reassuring them that our ship of state will right itself and survive.”

Kaufman also made sure to remind her students about how easy it is to think that they are living through the worst crisis ever.

“There have been many (crisis) and we endure when we return to these principles that bind us together for the public good and protection of individual rights,” Kaufman said.

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