Reviewing an online BYU high school Honors Government class

Reviewing Unit 1 of BYU’s online Honors Government class suggests it’s no better than the high school class; the only advantage is that students save time.

Government Class Signing Declaration of IndependenceThere’s an interesting unofficial experiment taking place at Little Bookworm’s high school: Rather than sitting through a semester of Government (five days a week for five months or so), many of the kids have discovered that they can get the same credit if they sign up for an online, independent study U.S. Honors Government class that BYU offers.

Those kids who have taken the government class say that they cover the same amount of material that they were covering in the classroom, except that, if they power through the online material, they can finish it in a three-day weekend. It’s not just the time-saving aspect that appeals to them. The school’s teacher is apparently boring. The online material is also boring (more on that in a minute), but 15 hours of boring is a lot better than the 70 or so classroom hours they would otherwise spend on U.S. government, not even counting homework.

I’m happy to report that the classroom teachers are feeling threatened. According to Little Bookworm, when several kids were in the  hallway discussing the online class option, a teacher who walked by said, “You’re taking my job away.”

Dear Public School Teacher: Welcome to the wonderful world of competition. Maybe now you’ll up your game and stop being boring, often vindictive, arbitrary and capricious, ideologically driven, and all the other sins that too often show up in teachers whose tenure, combined with the aforementioned lack of competition, mean that they have sinecures, no matter their academic sins.

So that’s the good stuff. All is not perfect, though, in the world of BYU’s online U.S. Government class. The writing is horrible, the information inaccurate or ill-informed, and the tests unfair (something that is offset by the fact that students can get all the answers online and take the test twice to perfect their grades). Let me elaborate:

1. The writing is horrible. I hate passive voice. I use it occasionally, sometimes on purpose because it is better than the alternative, and sometimes by accident, usually when I don’t quite know what I want to say. I’m with Bryan Garner, though, in believing that passive voice is the culprit behind most boring and confusing writing.

I don’t think the person who wrote the text for the BYU Honors Government class feels about passive voice as I do. Here are two representative paragraphs:

The republican form of government the Framers established is largely intact in the United States, especially at the national level. While Senators are now directly elected by the people (instead of by state legislatures) and several states have enacted provisions allowing for various forms of direct democracy (such as ballot initiatives and referendums), the American system of government is primarily a representative republic, not a democracy.

By design, then, the decisions made by America’s political leaders are often different from the will of the majority of the people at any given point in time. Individual political leaders, however, are kept in check through frequent elections. Members of the House of Representatives must face re-election every two years and Senators every six. Presidents serve terms of four years. By staggering these elections so that there is never a case in which all congressional seats and the presidency are being contested at the same time, it is impossible for a majority faction to take control of the national government through one election.

The above comes in at 170 words.

And here is my first stab at taking out all that passive voice:

At the national level, America continues the Founder’s republican approach to politics. Although the people, rather than their legislatures, directly elect Senators, and some states use ballot initiatives and referendums, which are forms of direct democracy, America’s federal government is still primarily a representative republic.

By design, then, America’s politicians will often decide in ways that do not align with the People’s will. Frequent elections keep these politicians from becoming dictators. For the House of Representatives, politicians must face the voters every two years; for the Senate, every six years; and for the White House, every four years. The fact that these terms overlap means that no majority faction can use a single election to take over the government.

My version has 119 words. I think it’s just as clear. Moreover, it’s more dynamic and, therefore, less work to read.

2. The information is inaccurate. In Government class’s first lesson (The Origins of American Government), which is the only one I’ve seen so far, the program makes two big mistakes. The first is that it believes that the opposite of “liberty” is “order,” something it spells out at length in Lesson 1.3, about the Constitution:

Throughout this course, you will be exposed to a variety of arguments about the rationale for government and its various undertakings. You will also begin to understand the complexity of the arguments on both sides of debates about the creation and implementation of government programs. In almost every case, these arguments come down to that same issue of balance between those two crucial, yet seemingly irreconcilable principles: liberty and order.

Noooo! The two principles at issue are liberty and control. Liberty cannot exist without order. Anarchy is not liberty. It represents mankind’s return to a primitive state that invariably lasts a short time before strong men or groups gain control. Let’s scrap the word “order” for now. Liberty goes with the Rule of Law; Liberty’s absence appears when the government takes too much control.

The rule of law means that people can determine in advance which conduct will benefit them and which will not. If they kill, they can expect punishment. If they go to a bank, they can expect it will not defraud them or that, if it does, the bank can be subject to both criminal and civil liability. They know that the government will use its power to protect private contracts that comport with law and, to an extent, tradition. Furthermore, if one party violates a contract, the other party can expect the rule of law to ensure that he is made whole — not at society’s expense, but at the expense of the other party to the contract. A free market cannot exist without that type of reliability. The government should not control the contract or the trade; but it should use the rule of law in a police capacity.

The rule of law also means that, in a free society, the government has to follow its own rules. This in turn means that important government or private individuals must abide by the same law as ordinary people.

This liberty-based approach to the rule of law, incidentally, is why the Nunes memo and other information detailing the FBI’s conduct in the last 1.5 years is so infuriating. I’m not talking about the fact that Hillary’s people apparently conspired with Russia to create and publicize a false dossier they hoped would destroy, first, Trump’s candidacy and, second, his presidency. I’m also not talking about the fact that Mueller has an illegally unconstrained mandate to investigate everything, rather than an actual crime.

Instead, I’m talking about the terrible damage flowing from the fact that the FBI abandoned the rule of law when it began, for whatever reason, to focus on Russia and Trump during 2016. Was it being careless? Was it ideologically driven? Was someone getting a bribe? It doesn’t matter; what matters is that the FBI, as an institution, does not feel itself bound by the same laws and procedures it brutally enforces against “the little people.” This is not about order versus liberty. This is about liberty through the rule of law versus tyranny through government overreach.

The second terrible damage is that what we’ve learned about the FBI’s conduct shows that, when it came to Hillary Clinton, our government willingly threw the rule of law out the window. At every stage, the fix was in: Hillary’s people got immunity for no reason; the FBI voluntarily destroyed evidence; the FBI created the document exonerating Hillary before it even talked to her; when Hillary was interviewed, she got to have her “lawyer” at her side even though the lawyer was herself a witness or possible accomplice and the FBI kept no records; and the Attorney General had a secret meeting with Hillary’s husband right before the FBI improperly decided that the DOJ should not prosecute her — to name but a few examples of special treatment. This is not equality under the law. It is inconsistent with liberty and has nothing to do with order.

Order is an antidote to chaos, but it is not an end in itself. As manifested through laws and regulations, it is something that affects the continuum that underlies all political systems, a continuum that begins with liberty and ends with tyranny. One can have ordered liberty and ordered tyranny. The difference is that, in the one, the people get to call most of the shots in their own lives, something easy to do in a stable society that has few laws, but those that it has are unbreakable; in the other, the government calls most or all of the shots in citizen’s lives.

Again, the tension is between liberty and control, not liberty and order.

In the same context, BYU goes full statist mode in arguing that the government’s important functions align perfectly with the regulatory state. Again, this is from Lesson 1.3:

Additionally, government exists in the United States, and in other countries, to resolve conflicts, facilitate cooperation, provide a stable economic framework, and provide essential public goods and services. The political system established by the Constitution was created by the people, for the people, not by political leaders for their own benefit. Consequently, the government was intended to have only those powers that were essential to secure the common good of the people. Elected officials are accountable to the people for the manner in which they discharge their duties. The good of the people is largely worked out among the people themselves, as individuals, families, and communities interacting with each other socially and economically.

So what are the important functions served by government in a political society where the expectation is that government does as little as possible? Have you ever stopped to think about the ways government influences your everyday life? Just think about some of the things you have done today.

Did you eat cereal for breakfast? Did you worry that the milk you poured on it might be contaminated? No, because the Food and Drug Administration monitors dairies to ensure that the milk they produce is safe. Did you happen to read the label on the cereal box to determine the nutritional content of your breakfast? If you did, you saw federally mandated information about the cereal you were eating.

Did you drive to school or to the store? Were there huge holes in the road? No, because national, state and local governments work together to keep the roads in generally good repair. Were cars careening through intersections at high speeds without even slowing down? Was there chaos on the streets? No, because there are laws and police officers to keep order on the streets.

Is the air you breathe and the water you drink generally free from hazardous chemicals? Yes, because the Environmental Protection Agency and its state and local counterparts work together to limit the amount of pollution produced by businesses and individuals.

Are you fearful that another nation will attack the United States and overthrow our government? Even after the horrors of September 11, most Americans do not spend their days in constant fear because they instinctively rely on the national government to maintain a national defense force to respond to and discourage such attacks.

There are a thousand things the government does each day which allow us to worry less and live more comfortably than we otherwise would. What would your day have been like if there were no government regulation of food products, roads or the environment? Would you enjoy the freedoms you do without a robust national defense system?

One would think that a university-level government teacher would understand the difference between core government functions such as national security and highly ancillary government functions such as the EPA or the FDA. I’m not arguing about the benefits we may get from clean air and clean water or from stop signs at the intersection. I’m just saying that those are rules that can slowly but surely drag a society from ordered liberty to ordered tyranny. (By the way, Europe, which is a tightly controlled and, one might say, ordered society, eventually discovered that all those driving rules fostered disorder, not security.) The regulatory state may be helpful, but it is not free.

You can see why this kind of careless language and statist thinking in a U.S. government class makes me crazy.

3. The tests are unfair. Don’t you hate teachers who put things on tests that they didn’t cover in the material? That’s precisely what the Unit 1 Quiz did. It also had imprecise and ambiguous questions that made it impossible to tell what information the government class seeks — and therefore rendered all three or four multiple choice answers equally right or wrong.

The quiz question that really irked me was the one that claimed that the Founders considered the average citizen evil and justified Republican governance on that ground. It is true that some of the Founders felt that men were evil. The problem with BYU’s government class, though, is that the program quotes only one Founder — James Madison. Significantly, according to BYU’s course materials, Madison didn’t argue that men are evil. Instead, he argued that they are sometimes swayed by passion and will therefore make decisions they come to regret later.

There are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind. (Federalist No. 63.)

Just to be certain that Little Bookworm and I hadn’t missed something in any of the readings preceding the Unit quiz, I searched for the word “evil” in everything we read. Nothing. The quiz definitely asked a question that had as its answer a conclusion that the material never touched.

Later units in this program may be wonderful and I’ll be sorry I made such a fuss now. Based on what I have seen, though, the government class has the same failings as what the local, highly-rated public schools offer: it’s poorly written, it fails to understand what it’s teaching, and the quizzes are unfair. The only virtue, then, is that high school students, rather than wasting 70 or so hours of their lives on a government class waste only 20 or so. That’s got to be a good thing.

Still, it rankles with me that our children remain so uneducated about the most brilliant document (that’s the Constitution) and the best governing system in the history of the world. And no, I don’t believe I’m exaggerating. America’s social, cultural, economic, and military success, even as they’ve mostly maintained individual liberty, are unequaled in history. We’ve had our bad moments (slavery springs to mind, a sin we imported from Europe), but for the most part, we achieved these goals without becoming a totalitarian dictatorship that practices some form of world conquest. (As a reminder, all ancient civilizations, the moment they had power, went mad for world conquest. America flirted with overseas imperialism but, thankfully, abandoned the effort before going all Europe about it.)