The Kavanaugh Hearings

Reflecting on a Controversial Supreme Court Nomination Process

If you teach in the United States, your students—like many Americans—have likely been following the Senate hearings in the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. Supreme Court nominations are always newsworthy because of the Court’s special status as the last resort for Americans seeking justice, and because its nine Justices serve for life as arbiters of the law whose decisions must be respected by all.

This nomination process, however, has drawn extraordinary attention for unusual reasons. In late September, both Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were both high school students in 1982, gave emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In over nine hours of testimony, Dr. Blasey Ford told her story and described how the alleged assault traumatically impacted her life, and Judge Kavanaugh denied the charges, decrying them as a campaign to smear him and scuttle his nomination. Without the benefit of an investigation prior to these testimonies, the two witnesses were pitted against each other with little additional evidence or testimonies to support their statements; thus many viewers were forced to conclude that one of them must be lying. The next day, the Judiciary Committee voted to advance Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to a vote by the full Senate, taking the next step in the process of confirming him to a seat on the Supreme Court. But they also agreed to ask President Trump to initiate an FBI investigation of the accusations against Kavanaugh prior to the full Senate vote. That investigation has now begun, and the story will continue to evolve as it unfolds.

The testimony this week occasioned an outpouring of stories from women who, though unconnected to Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford personally, broke years of silence to tell of their own experiences with sexual assault. Partisan debates about the truth and relevance of Dr. Blasey Ford’s accusations and the party-line votes on Judge Kavanaugh have undermined trust in the Senate confirmation process and the Supreme Court as an institution, which are each expected to maintain the highest integrity and rise above politics.

Educators may be wary of discussing the issue at school because of the partisan acrimony surrounding the story, as well as as the troubling accusations of sexual assault and trauma. Yet we know that this story is resonating for young people—not only because of the civic significance of a Supreme Court appointment, but also because many students are the same age Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford were when the alleged events took place. As one high school student pointed out in a New York Times interview, “For me and my friends his past is our now.”

Whether teachers discuss Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation in school or not, students are learning something as they watch this story unfold: about the functioning of American institutions; about the uneasy mix of law and politics; about gender norms and expectations; about how allegations of sexual assault are judged by leaders and the public. In Facing History and Ourselves classrooms, students may also be making connections to themes of decision-making, responsibility, judgment, and legacy which are embedded in their curricula and emerge pointedly in this story.

By bringing this week’s events into a structured classroom discussion, teachers can offer students a chance to process their own reactions, to reflect, and to deliberate with others, supporting their civic and social emotional development.

 

Create a Respectful and Safe Environment for Discussion

Classroom contracts create a foundation for reflective and respectful discussion—something that is important for any lesson, but especially one that may spark sharp opinions and strong emotions. If you haven’t already established norms for your classroom, see our guide Fostering Civil Discourse: A Guide to Classroom Conversations or our Contracting teaching strategy. Even if you’ve already created a contract, take a moment to revisit your classroom norms prior to discussing Judge Kavanaugh’s hearings.

Creating a safe environment also means being aware of the ways in which individual students may be particularly impacted by this topic and planning accordingly. Teachers know their students best and should use their judgment about approaching this topic in the classroom. It is important to be clear that the kind of assault Dr. Blasey Ford alleges is a crime that harms millions of women each year. Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony may trigger memories of painful personal experiences for some students. The suggested activities below give students the opportunity for private reflection and allow them to choose what they do and don’t want to share with the group. It’s important to consider how you can support students who bring up their own personal experiences to you or to the class; counselors in your school can be a helpful resource, as is this article from the National Education Association, Best Practices for Supporting and Educating Students Who Have Experienced Domestic Violence or Sexual Victimization.

Cover the Basics of the Story

The sources below can can help you introduce the hearings and their key players to your students.

After introducing one or more of these sources, you might want to check for understanding using some of the questions below:

  • Why did the Senate Judiciary Committee hold these hearings?
  • What were some key moments in the testimony of Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh?
  • Why were so many people riveted by these hearings? How are Americans responding to what they heard?

Explore the Issue with Intellectual Rigor, Emotional Engagement, and Ethical Reflection

At Facing History and Ourselves, we think the classroom is a place where students should learn with intellectual rigor, emotional engagement, and ethical reflection, and come to understand that their own views and choices matter. We represent those core educational values in our “pedagogical triangle”:

 

This integration of head, heart, and ethics is always important to learning, and it’s particularly crucial when students are considering contentious issues like the Kavanaugh hearings.

Tell students that you want them to use their mind, heart, and conscience in today’s discussion. Invite them to open their journals, or a notebook, to reflect on questions related to the three points of the triangle. Tell students that these reflections will be private unless they choose to share them.

Questions you might use to prompt reflection include:

Intellectual Rigor
  • What key information do you have about the confirmation hearings and the testimony given by Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford ?
  • What facts are agreed upon? Which are contested?
  • How might confirmation bias play a role in how people are interpreting the testimony?
  • What additional information would you like to have—about the key players, the process, or the institutions involved?
Emotional Engagement
  • What range of emotions did you observe in the testimony at the hearings and among those who were watching? Why do you think Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings elicited such powerful emotions?
  • What feelings have come up for you as you’ve watched and learned about this issue? Are there particular moments that stand out to you?
Ethical Reflection
  • What questions about right and wrong, fairness or injustice, does this issue raise for you?
  • Where in this story do you see human dignity being undermined? Where do you see it being upheld?
  • What qualities of character should someone have to be a Supreme Court Justice?
  • Is it fair to judge adults for things they did as teenagers?
  • What values and beliefs might be guiding the choices of those who support Kavanaugh’s nomination? Those who contest it? In your opinion, what would be a just outcome of these hearings?

After students spend 8–10 minutes writing, move to discussions in small groups or as a whole class. Remind students that they can share as much or as little of their reflections as they want. You could also use a Graffiti Board strategy: draw a large triangle on your board, labeling the corners “mind,” “heart” and “conscience.” At each corner of the large triangle, ask students to write thoughts and questions that they are comfortable sharing, then review it together. Discuss patterns you notice, differences you see, and questions that stand out.

Use Your Voice

Conclude the discussion by inviting students to step back and consider what is at stake in this Supreme Court nomination process. Journalists and other observers have called the hearings “historic” and suggested that they might change Americans’ attitudes to their government. What might be some consequences of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination and of the hearings—for students individually, for their communities, and for the country as a whole? Ask students to imagine that they have the chance to communicate directly to one or more of the key figures in this story—to Judge Kavanaugh, to Dr. Blasey Ford, or to members of the Senate. What questions would they want to ask? What perspectives would they want to share? If students would like to share reflections publicly, our partners at the New York Times Learning Network are inviting comments in their Student Opinion Section: What Are Your Thoughts About the Kavanaugh Senate Hearing?.

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