Teaching Reagan: Constructing a Unit Based on Argument

For the last 20 years, I have never been a big fan of the textbook. They serve a small purpose to a very small point. For me, the small point of the textbook is to have it be the basis for an argument. As a teacher of US History, I try to have my students make arguments and analysis based on facts. An opinion usually sneaks in here or there, but that is fine once in a while. The past week has found me ending a unit in my history classes. The foundation for the unit is the shift from a moderate populace to a more conservative one in the 1980s. At the center of this shift is none other than Ronald Reagan.

I have blogged about Reagan before. He is an enigma, a wildly popular president and for the life of I have a hard time understanding why sometimes as I look at the record. However, as a teacher, I have to make my own students make their own choices.

Whether it was SDI, the conservative movement, cartoons, supply side economics, or one of many other events, I have been slowly accumulating lessons about the Gipper. 20 years ago, he took up one day. Now, he takes up six. The reason for the change has been the effect Reagan still has on the Republican party and on middle America. I grew in Reagan country and still live here as an adult. I have not always agreed with his policies and I have not agreed with his legacy. For the students, the enigma of how Reagan became so influential is perplexing.

The Unit Begins
1. The Malaise
The Fallout of Watergate and Vietnam are examined in this introductory lesson. Topics include the Halloween Massacre, the continuing energy crisis, the election of 1976, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the continuing malaise during the Carter presidency.

2. Culture of the 1970s
Students learn about the fabulous and the dangerous late 1970s culture through my eyes. I talk about my days of nerd heaven between Star Wars and beginning to play Dungeons and Dragons. I also take about the scourge of Disco and the coming of Punk. New technologies are also discussed like the Microwave and cable TV.

3. Reagan and his first term
In the third lesson, I finally get to Reagan. We discuss his background of growing up in nearby Tampico and Dixon and his early career. We reminisce about HUAC and discuss his time as Governor of California. Finally, we get to the election of 1980. After a short PPT presentation, the students read about his first term and discuss things that went well and things that didn’t. Students discuss the merits of his presidency and do a cartoon worksheet which.

4. The Great Communicator
Five speeches are examined as students make a product about Reagan’s speaking ability. A Time for Choosing, the Challenger Speech, Tear Down this Wall, Evil Empire Speech, and the Iran Contra Speech. The goal is to break down the elements of what made Reagan and effective speaker. Here are two of the speeches…

5. Reaganomics
Students review Reagan’s first term. Then a discussion is held about why people are certain denominations of money. Bills are discussed and not coins. Then in small groups, they read a balanced account of economic indicators about Reaganomics. Students make a t-chart and place the items in either good or bad.

With the advice from former president Richard Nixon, Reagan concentrated on economic issues his first six months in office. Reaganomics was the name given to the supply-side economic theory which Reagan based his economic plans. It operated on the belief that the economy was struggling in large part because of excessive taxation. With more money going to taxes, individuals and corporations were unable to invest capital to stimulate growth. The plan called for massive tax cuts in order to stimulate investments. The economic growth would then `trickle down` to the workers. Supply side economics also called for budget cuts to counteract the loss of revenue from the tax cuts. Reagan followed this model in creating his budget plan in 1981. Reagan put together legislation that cut government expenditures by $40 billion and created a three-year tax cut plan for individual and corporate income taxes. The tax cut was the largest in history and was expected to jump-start the economy. However, after the bills passed in the summer of 1981, the country fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Inflation averaged 12.5 percent when Reagan entered office, was reduced to 4.4 percent when he left.

Interest rates fell six points.

Eight million new jobs were created as unemployment fell.

An eight percent growth in private wealth.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1996, the number of people (white, black, and Hispanic) below the poverty level increased in almost every year between 1981 (31.8 million) and 1992 (39.3 million).

We were $994 billion in debt in fiscal 1981, when Carter left off, and $2,867 billion when Reagan leaves office in fiscal 1989. The rough number is 2.85 times as much in 1989 as in 1981.

The primary reason the deficit grew during the Reagan years was the Cold War military buildup.

Tax cuts did revenues increased in fact in almost a straight progression from pre-Reagan years.

The trade deficit quadrupled.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act is widely considered to be the best piece of American tax legislation since the adoption of the income tax. It is the opposite of Reaganomics. Over its first five years, it closed more than $500 billion in loopholes and tax shelters. As a result:
•Major U.S. corporations that previously had paid little or nothing in income taxes due to loopholes were put back on the tax rolls, and corporate taxes were increased overall by a net of more $100 billion over five years.
•A huge wasteful tax-shelter industry for high-income individuals was shut down.
• Tax rates on capital gains income were raised to the same level as on other income.
• Millions of moderate-income working families got tax relief through a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
• Taxes on most families (on average, all but the best-off tenth) were reduced. (The table shows the tax changes by income group.)
• The income tax was substantially simplified for most filers.
The average annual growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) from 1981 to 1989 was 3.2 percent per year, compared with 2.8 percent from 1974 to 1981 and 2.1 percent from 1989 to 1995.

During the economic expansion alone, the economy grew by a robust annual rate of 3.8 percent. By the end of the Reagan years, the American economy was almost one-third larger than it was when they began.

When Reagan took office in 1981, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. In the recession of 1981-82, that rate peaked at 9.7 percent, but it fell continuously for the next seven years. When Reagan left office, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent.

Real median family income grew by $4,000 during the Reagan period after experiencing no growth in the pre-Reagan years; it experienced a loss of almost $1,500 in the post-Reagan years.

The savings rate did not rise in the 1980s, as supply side advocates had predicted. In fact, in the 1980s the personal savings rate fell from 8 percent to 6.5 percent. If the median family was better off why did their savings go down?

In 1993 Clinton raised the taxes on the rich, the opposite of Reaganomics, opponents argued that this would stop the growing economy. That did not happen.

Not surprisingly, students understand most of the economic discussion held. As a class we discuss which fact goes on which side. Most of the time it is clear cut, but there are some facts up for debate. Students look at a graph and answer some questions about the chart and conservative thought. Then, using the t-chart, the students determine whether Reagan should be put on the $10 bill replacing Alexander Hamilton.

6. Foreign Affairs
Students review what they already know about Reagan and foreign affairs from his speeches. Then a cartoon is analyzed. Students get a blank map and using text boxes and arrows, they read their textbook and fill out where the hot spots that Reagan had to deal with. Reagan’s dealing with Central America are discussed as well as Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Reagan Doctrine. Students then get a worksheet to analyze the Iran-Contra affair. In the worksheet are what other options did Reagan have and other solutions to the problem.

7. SDI
Students go to the computer lab and read a PPT a student did for National History Day about Reagan and SDI. At the end of the PowerPoint are a series of questions about how SDI influenced foreign affairs in the summits with Gorbachev and the functionality of SDI today.

8. Reagan in Cartoons
Students go to the computer lab and analyze a selection of about 30 cartoons about Reagan. Students pick out ten and explain how the cartoons reflect the presidency of Reagan – both good and bad. Using what they have learned in previous lessons as evidence, the students put it altogether.


While the Reagan Lessons are over, the unit continues for another week and a half as students examine George H.W. Bush, Desert Storm, the Clinton Legacy, Columbine and 1990s culture.

Altogether, the unit lasts about 4 weeks. It is a unit that is always evolving. As more and more information is released and more and more documents are released from the Reagan era, then lessons can be built around investigation and argument. I think that next year, I would like to add some video which discusses the presidency as a whole and add some polling data about his popularity. In addition, I would like to add a scenario or a simulation for the students to investigate Iran-Contra or dealing with the Soviets.

At its core, the lessons are about using the evidence to make arguments for both sides as the students form their own opinions and learn multiple points of view.


Reagan at 100: A Cartoon Legacy

By Herb Block

On Sunday, February 6, 2011, Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday will be celebrated in the nearby towns of Dixon and Tampico. To many Republicans, Reagan is close to the second coming of Christ. Reagan is quoted more by modern Republicans than the man most associated with the party in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln. But to most historians, Reagan’s legacy is not what modern Republicans claim it to be. In fact, it is quite mixed.

I, myself, have blogged on the legacy of Reagan before (and here, too). He truly is an enigma to me. As the chief executive, no major legislation that has any effect exists from his terms. NONE! Granted, there was a Democratic Congress, but still, he could not get one thing passed that impacts our lives today? Is Reagan’s legacy wishful thinking? Sure, he made Americans feel good about themselves after the malaise of the 1970s. But unemployment went down slightly (after an initial jump to 10% in 1982) over the eight years. Reagan’s greatest strength as chief executive was his ability to deliver a good speech. And that he did…time after time after time. But does that make Reagan a great President? To some it does.

As I sit and work on my doctorate from time to time, my second topic of choice was always how Reagan is treated in textbooks. Looking at the US History textbook, Reagan gets two sections in a chapter on the rise of the Republicans. Once section discusses supply side economics, the other section Reagan’s fight against Communism. My friend and former Union Representative, Dave, recently wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper derailing against Ronnie on this auspicious occasion.

To the Editor:

The utter failure of “Reaganomics” is part of President Ronald Reagan’s legacy.

This is relevant as we celebrate Reagan’s centennial in the fourth year of the Great Recession. Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of “supply-side” economics in the belief that cutting taxes for the rich would result in their investing it productively helped to transfer income upward. The rich got richer; the poor got poorer.

Reagan’s unabashed pursuit of deregulation helped to further the lack of restraint and responsibility on Wall Street and in corporate suites, leading us down the path to the economic situation we are in today.

Reagan’s unabashed assault on unions helped to weaken any voice for working people and contribute to a decline in wages for a generation. Workers turned to credit to sustain their standard of living, and the bill came due.

When Reagan took office, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 8 percent of all income. Today, the top 1 percent takes 23.5 percent of all income. Uncontrolled greed has left our nation weaker, and that is part of Reagan’s legacy.

Finally, Reagan’s unabashed assault on government helped weaken a belief in democracy. The government belongs to all citizens. We elect our government. We do not elect corporate CEOs. Yet the latter’s inordinate power in our nation today is indisputable.

In all fairness, Reagan was president for only eight years. Those who followed largely continued in his path, including Democrats. “Trickle-down” economics has had a 30-year run, and it has failed. It’s time to move on.

While Dave did throw in some good facts about class income and union breaking, he forgot the most important thing – the deficit skyrocketed under Reagan. Government spending increased! When Reagan said Government was the problem, he wasn’t kidding!

What most people have trouble with understanding is the dichotomy between what Reagan said and what he did. They were always the opposite. Reagan was a believer in the economic policies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics: lower taxes, lower spending, deregulate, and end welfare systems. While Reagan never achieved Friedman’s policy, Clinton would. In theory, Reaganomics worked when there was a new revolution like the Internet and computers to drive the economy. But that is not very often. Domestic affairs were not Reagan’s strongest suits.  Those belonged to speeches and dealing with Communists.

Reagan gave three of the most memorable speeches by a President in my lifetime. The first was on the Challenger disaster. The others were at the Brandenburg Gate telling Gorbachev to “Tear Down this wall!” and the third speech was on the Strategic Space Defense Initiative. All three were filled with a toughness, an optimism, and a will to improve life for Americans. Here was Reagan’s finest shining moment:

His role in foreign affairs is mixed. The Iran Contra Scandal rocked the nation and many Americans thought he should resign. When terrorists killed over 200 Americans with a truck bomb in Lebanon, Reagan tucked tail and brought the rest home. In dealing with the Soviets on the a new Start Treaty, Reagan was in his element in playing the role as the leader of the American people. And you know, maybe that’s what Americans needed at the time. “Give the people what they want” is a phrase that goes back to the Roman Empire and Reagan did that in spades. Reagan seemed quite prophetic at times about communism:

“The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism; it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

As a model for economics, Reagan was not one. For Reagan, we had a man whom Americans loved for his humor, toughness, and sense of right and wrong – his demeanor was more like ours than a politician’s. His philosophies on economics have never really panned out on their own. In fact, they have done more damage than good.

As someone who teaches history for a living, nothing quite tells the story of the Reagan dichotomy like a cartoon. And over the years there have been several which I use to teach what an enigma Reagan is. Nothing quite reaches kids like a cartoon. It teaches them to connect several items together and provides a basis for dialogue and debate about the merits of the point of view of the cartoonist.

By Kirk Anderson

By John Sherffius