Balance of Power

Balance of Power

What are the three branches of government? Only 38% of Americans can answer that question correctly. A playful Electronic Field Trip premiering October 2013 lays out the separation of powers using a baseball metaphor that keeps a dense subject lighthearted. Learn more about the new show with our guest Cash Arehart.


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter.

In 2011 the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a study showing that only 38 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the US government. Even among those who felt they understood the purpose and role of the three branches of government, only 50 percent could name all three.

It’s a knowledge deficit that Colonial Williamsburg is working to fill in a playful way with this November's Electronic Field Trip Balance of Power. My guest today is Production Associate Cash Arehart. Cash, thank you for being our guest today.

Cash Arehart: Thanks for having me Harmony.

Harmony: Tell us a little bit about the program for those who might not be familiar with it.

Cash: The Electronic Field Trip series has been a product of Colonial Williamsburg’s for about 20 years now. We’ve been producing topics originally that had to do with colonial America and of topics of particular interest to Colonial Williamsburg, but over time we’ve begun to branch out into more of American history into the 19th and now even into the 20th century and we’re just trying to give teachers the resources they need to be able to effectively teach American history in the classrooms.

Harmony: So with Balance of Power you’re trying to talk about those three branches of government and kind of roll out this concept in a framework that’s for elementary school and younger to digest.

Cash: The target demographics are about 4th through 8th graders for the electronic field trips series so we’re trying to present what is otherwise a pretty dense topic in a very accessible way.

So for this program, instead of having a very tedious program about how there are three separate branches, and we have the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, we have instead the Legislative branch and the Executive branch throughout American history playing baseball against each other and the Judiciary serves as the umpires.

So there’s Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, there’s Thaddeus Stevens and FDR and John Marshall all on the field together so it’s a lot of fun.

Harmony: It’s a great metaphor and it’s a very apt metaphor and it’s so helpful because as you said, this could be a very dense subject area. So to find a way to make it playful, to make it engaging is probably about the hardest trick of all in producing one of these shows. How does it play out?

Cash: Well, we broke it down into three acts. We have three different opportunities to talk about events that affect the balance of power in the federal constitution over time. Many of our Electronic Field Trips in the past, they would just focus on one particular point in time, but the Constitution is a living document. It continues to this day. So we saw the opportunity to stretch the story over the length of time of the Constitution.

We brought it this close to today as we could. So we begin with Marbury v. Madison, that very famous Supreme Court case that establishes the principle of judicial review and it makes the Supreme Court an equal branch; an equal party to the other two. After that we talked about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in those years following the American Civil War and then the third act focuses on FDR and his attempt to pack the Supreme Court in the late 1930s.

Harmony: So how are the acts playing out? Do you see these issues in contention and then the Supreme Court weighing in their role as umpire?

Cash: Well, each act has, it has a different take on it because they were three very different events in our nation’s history. So with the first event, with Marbury v. Madison, you have both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the same team, but obviously they were not getting along at that point in life so you might imagine two star players on the same team and they’re each trying to out-do one another on the field.

Adams gets on base so then Jefferson he has to not only get on base, he has to drive in some runs. And then that drags the court in. One of the officials on the side are William Marbury so he decides that Jefferson had hit a foul ball. He comes running into the home plate, “No, no Jefferson’s foul, he’s foul I tell you!” and then John Marshall weighs in along with some of the other justices. So that’s how we use the baseball game as a metaphor to explain the actual event that transpired with, in this case, Marbury v. Madison.

When you get into President Johnson on the pitcher’s mound and he’s pitching against a very hard legislative team of people like Thaddeus Stevens and his colleagues, these other radical republicans in the House and in the Senate such as John Bingham. They are driving in runs. They’re not letting Johnson get away with anything during Reconstruction and you begin to see them move towards impeachment.

At one point they pull out these tremendous baseball bats that we had made. They’re about three times the size of a regular baseball bat and we took stencils and wrote impeachment across the side of them just to demonstrate how much more impressive impeachment is as a tool of the federal government than passing a regular bill or a law.

Harmony: We mentioned the three branches of government but there’s a sort of a fourth player on the field. How is public opinion represented? How was society represented?

Cash: Well we did have a bunch of folks up in the stands, several extras that came in, some of them in costume to represent, again, the fact that the Constitution stretches over America’s history so there were folks from the Federal period. There are folks dressed from the Reconstruction era and from the 1930s, so that when FDR comes out onto the field in the third act and he begins to appeal to the American public saying, “These coots on the Supreme Court, they’re too old, they’re not letting me enact the New Deal legislation that I’ve promised the American people." The American public turns on FDR and this is something a lot of people, and especially students, aren’t going to understand or recognize initially.

Many people believe today FDR was this very popular figure, one of the most accomplished Presidents of our history, but in 1937, to continue the baseball metaphor, FDR struck out. He tried to propose these laws that would allow him to put more Justices onto the Supreme Court so that they wouldn't be able to overturn any more New Deal legislation. And the American people did not go for it. They vehemently opposed his attempt even though they liked the new deal, even though they liked FDR, the American people would not tolerate anyone trying to fiddle with the Constitutional balance of power in the federal government and FDR had to back down.

Harmony: It is as you said before a dense topic. When it was selected as one of the topic areas to explore in the Electronic Field Trip program, why was it chosen? Is this something that schools are being asked to teach their students? Is this part of the standardized testing that comes up every year so teachers can use this in the classroom and be assured that it will help their students meet those benchmarks?

Cash: As things have changed in our classrooms and more emphasis has been placed on standardized tests, standards of learning, we too have had to respond.

So all of our Electronic Field Trips now are correlated against different national and state standards of learning. We went through with the guiding documents, that’s the initial framework of the program, and we identified a gap in our material and we said, “We haven’t done anything about the separation of powers and checks and balances yet. What would be the best way for us to address these different standards of learning in a program?”

So that’s really the beginning point is identifying a need in our marketplace, and our marketplace is our American teachers and students. How are some of the ways that we can get them the resources they need to better understand our history?

Harmony: It’s going to be an education for the students, but I imagine it was an education for the producers as well. How did you undertake to really bring yourself up to snuff in this topic?

Cash: It’s a lot of work and a lot of research for all of our topics. The timeline for an Electronic Field Trip begins, in some cases years, maybe two or three years before that program will actually go to air. With research we’ll bring in a bank of interns each summer to help us just to begin to do the initial research on one of the projects and then some of the production associates will get involved refining that research, narrowing in on different topics and stories of interest.

And then we always consult with the historians that we have in the Department of Historic Research to make sure that we’re staying on topic and that all of our facts are correct. So there are multiple layers of fact checking, research, rechecking to make sure that what we’re coming up with isn’t just an entertaining story but it’s also correct.

Harmony: We should mention too, this Electronic Field Trip airs November 7, 2013, but through May 1 of this year you can still watch, A Gift to the Nation, a free Electronic Field Trip that Colonial Williamsburg is offering to anybody who signs up. What’s the story behind that offer?

Cash: This year’s gift to the nation is an Electronic Field Trip that Colonial Williamsburg is presenting at no cost. Traditionally the electronic field trip series is available for a subscription of $250.00. So that gets a school access to seven Electronic Field Trips on a variety of topics for the school year. The Gift to the Nation is available at no charge to anyone in the general public, not just teachers and students.

This year’s Gift to the Nation field trip is about the Founders of our nation; the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And it poses the question “Were the signers of the Declaration of Independence founders of a new nation or were they traitors to an old nation, or some of both?” And it looks at the events that surrounded several of those signers; their successes and their triumphs and regrettably some them their misfortunes in the months and years following the Declaration of Independence.

So that program is available for free on-line. You can stream the video component. There are on-line activities and games. There are lesson plans available as well and it’s a great introduction for somebody who isn’t familiar with the rest of the Electronic Field Trip series for them to begin to get an idea as to what kind of resources are available for them.

Harmony: Well you’ve made the upcoming season sound like a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to seeing the premiere of The Balance of Power. Cash, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Cash: Thank you, Harmony.

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