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I love being a professor. There are lots of great things about it. One is the joy of watching students blossom. Another is all the learning I get to do. In my current Business, Government and Society class I am enjoying both these benefits, watching students accomplish much while also learning a great deal myself. Right now we’re mutually learning details about the:

  1. fight over the constitutionality of the recent law to reform the US health care system;
  2. lawsuit the Department of Justice has filed to stop AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile (T-Mobile is based in Bellevue, Washington which is the venue for this class!);
  3. complaints some NGOs have voiced about Apple’s manufacturing operations in China (via its contract suppliers), including both their environmental and labor practices and
  4. lawsuits the regulator/conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has filed against Goldman Sachs and other sellers of mortgage backed securities.

The course is designed to acquaint business majors with how firms are affected not just by markets and internal management issues but also by the actions of governments and civil society.

I assign a textbook for the course—one of the standard texts for the field, now in its 13th edition, but I like teaching about topics “ripped from the headlines,” things unsettled and so contemporary that they are not yet in even the most recent edition of a textbook. I hope it makes the students feel drawn into important, ongoing dramas. Sometimes this works beautifully, shifting their perspective, prompting them to care about a topic not just because it will be “on the test” but because they become sincerely interested in it.

I think it is good, too, to give students primary source materials rather than something derived from a journalistic or textbook account of a matter. It can be challenging for them, but they get a lot of benefit from wrestling with these primary sources (the actual appellate court decisions in the health care fight, the actual DOJ complaint in the T-Mobile case, the actual FHFA complaint against Goldman Sachs in the mortage backed securities case and the full report of an NGO in the Apple matter). It helps them learn to read carefully and critically, helps them practice extracting and synthesizing information from a complex text—skills that will benefit them long after the Supreme Court has decided whether or not Congress can make everyone buy health insurance, long after they’ve forgotten the relevant seven magic words of Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution (and who Roscoe Filburn and Angel Raich were!). I hope they’ll develop a lingering respect for the judicial system and some pride that they have read some judicial opinions “in the raw” and extracted facts and arguments from them—I hope the course builds, to be blunt, their self confidence about what they can do (which is infinitely more than load some vapid bullet points from canned textbook PowerPoint slides into their short-term memory right before a test!).

For our unit on the health care law their assignment is to write an opinion on whether the insurance purchase mandate is constitutional, as if they were a Supreme Court Justice. They are to lay out the key provisions of the act, cite the relevant parts of the Constitution (the Commerce Clause and the 10th Amendment, with some nod to the concepts of enumerated powers and federalism) and distinguish or apply a handful of key precedents to substantiate their conclusion. It is a lot of work for them—these, again, are undergraduates—but I think students in my BGS class know more about what “Obamacare” actually provides (and requires) and how it is being contested than most any undergraduates in America. I am proud of that, and hope in the long run they will be, too, along with accruing a surfeit of other benefits.

Aside: besides the primary source materials, I am proud of having managed to assign a perfectly apt article from the Onion (“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be“).

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