The Most Important Thing I Have Ever Done: Part 1

Last Summer, when I decided to return to teaching after five years, I wrote a Facebook post that said teaching Political Science at this particular time—in the charged, divisive political climate after the 2016 election—would be “the most important thing I have ever done.” I still feel this way; perhaps NOW MORE THAN EVER.

This week, my students at the College of Charleston are on Spring Break. In our last class meeting, we discussed the Presidential line of succession while we were finishing up the chapter from their textbook on the Presidency. As I explained, if anything ever happens to an American President, we have an established line of succession that dictates who will be next in line for the job. I wrote the first ten positions and their current office holders on the board. First is obviously the Vice President, Mike Pence. However, if something were to happen to him, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is the next to take over. He is followed by Orrin Hatch, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate…

Up until this point, class was going smoothly. I had gotten to class a little early to begin writing my lecture notes on the board, as usual, so the lesson would move along quickly. However, when we got to the fourth position in the Presidential line of succession, the Secretary of State, my carefully planned lecture veered off the tracks. It started with a low murmuring around the room and more students than usual discreetly checking their cell phones. Finally, one of the students interrupted me, “Professor Matheny,” he said as he pointed to the board, “that’s not right. Rex Tillerson isn’t the Secretary of State anymore. Trump fired him.” Initially, I stated that this could not be the case. As you might imagine, I was a bit overwhelmed. You have to understand, I literally listen to the news every night as I fall asleep and every morning while I’m on my way to work, so I thought that surely I would have heard something about it if it were true. On the other hand, as more and more students received notification of the firing on their cell phones, I realized that it WAS true. Somehow, between the time I walked into my classroom and started writing on the board and the time I started my class lecture, the President of the United States had fired the nation’s Secretary of State and replaced him with the current CIA Director. The Undersecretary of State also got the axe. Within forty-eight hours, the Deputy FBI Director had been fired as well. A few days later, it was the National Security Advisor. Keep in mind that this all came less than two weeks after the Director of the National Economic Council, the Communications Director, and her Deputy had all also resigned or been fired. Talk about disruption!

We are living through a time of unprecedented political instability in the United States of America. I know the word “unprecedented” has been thrown around so much at this point that it has lost most of its meaning, but think about it: I am literally having trouble teaching my Political Science students about the Presidential line of succession because President Trump is firing officials so fast that my students can’t keep up with the name changes. I will have to change my final exam this semester so that it no longer requires them to memorize the names of the top ten current office holders in the line of succession. This all reveals an uncomfortable truth: students in classes like my American Government course at the College of Charleston no longer have the luxury of focusing on frivolous things. Instead, Charlottesville has focused them on the racism and injustice that still exists in America. Parkland has focused them on their fear for their own survival. And the revolving door of employment among our nation’s top officials has focused them on the stability and survival of our democracy.

To Be Continued…