The Age of Reagan

nine weeks, $175 tuition

Paul Christiansen, instructor

Course Description

Some say he was a trigger-happy warmonger; others say his clear-eyed view of communism won the Cold War. Some call him the next-worst thing to the Antichrist; others say he got this country back on its moral foundations. But no one can say that he didn’t have an impact. Ronald Reagan reshaped the politics and culture in the United States like few ever have. We speak of government, business, the military, foreign countries, God and religion, the past, and the planet as a whole in the terms that President Reagan used. Politicians, including Democrats, now strive to copy him or exceed him. His basic premises about society and goverment remain the country’s premises; his political langauge remains our political language. He may no longer be with us, but President Reagan still casts a long shadow over virtually all public affairs.

This course seeks to teach students about the recent past in a way that many history courses don’t, by examining the Reagan Era directly through its effect on the present day. Each week, students read my lectures alongside primary sources, such as President Reagan’s speeches, and then draw connections to present-day politics and culture, examining how what happened during the Reagan Administration still affects what Americans do, how they do it, and how they think about it. This class therefore has a historical component and a current-events component.

President Reagan was also both an example of a cultural shift and a great advocate for it, so this course also offers an optional media studies component. Students who participate in the media studies extension will watch a series of films, television episodes, and advertisements, then discuss them in a weekly session. The focus will be on how movies, TV, and ads convey particular cultural messages and on the manipulation of the audience that goes into them, a skill that's particularly useful for students to learn in this media-saturated age. Further details and resources, such as ratings and parental guides, can be found on the “Media Studies Extension” page.

The class meets twice a week, with a third session for those taking the media studies component. Mondays focus on primary-source readings and my own lectures, followed by time for questions and clarifications. Wednesdays focus on discussion of how Monday’s material relates to the present day. A brief written response is due each Tuesday, reflecting on Monday’s material and generating ideas for the coming discussion on Wednesday. The media studies extension meets Fridays and requires watching the relevant material for that week (assuming parental permission) and then writing a brief reflection on it. The final project of the class involves closer focus on one of the course’s major topics (such as the Cold War or politics and religion), but in a way that’s open to creativity and fun, such as writing a script for an ‘80s movie or composing a speech that President Reagan might have given.

Political Perspectives

As with all my history classes, I push no particular agenda and focus on critical thought. Therefore this class will neither laud the late president beyond measure, nor criticize him unduly. Students will learn both his political successes and failures. Nor does this class avoid scandal. Controversial topics such as abortion, AIDS, and the Iran-contra Affair are all part of the curriculum, alongside issues of race and religion. As always, I do not push my own personal perspective, but instead offer various views and instruct the students, “Decide for yourselves.” Further detail on my approach to teaching can be found at my US History course page.

I am particularly excited to offer this summer course on one of the most influential presidents in US history and the champion of modern conservatism. I hope you will join me in this political and cultural examination of the Age of Ronald Reagan.

Course Outline

Week One: Reagan and the Past

Monday: The ‘50s and the Fifties(tm); the ‘60s and the Sixties(tm); “Malaise”; “Morning in America”.

Reagan’s Words: “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” (40th Anniversrary of D-Day speech)

Wednesday: Sarah Palin’s “Real America”

Friday (Media Studies only): Back to the Future

Week Two: Reagan and the Government

Monday: Reagan’s relations with Democrats: Carter, Mondale & Ferraro, and Tip O’Neill; the culture of government under Reagan; deregulation; the military.

Reagan’s Words: “The nine scariest words in the English language”.

Wednesday: Current Democrat/Republican relations; “The era of Big Government is over”.

Friday (Media Studies only): Ghostbusters and the “1984” Apple ad

Week Three: Reagan and Money

Monday: Reaganomics: cutting taxes, cutting social spending, deficit spending, trickle-down economics; Reagan vs. the unions; Reagan vs. the EPA; Savings & Loans

Primary Source: “The Education of David Stockman”

Wednesday: deficits; right-to-work laws; the Great Recession.

Friday (Media Studies only): Michael Jordan Nike shoe ads

Week Four: Reagan and the Cold War

Monday: The “Evil Empire”: gerontocrats, Gorbachev, Chernobyl, Afghanistan; Latin America: Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador; the arms race: Able Archer, “Star Wars”, Reykjavik and diplomacy.

Reagan’s Words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Wednesday:Afghanistan; nuclear arms today; treatment of the military; Fukushima.

Friday (Media Studies only): Top Gun

Week Five: Reagan and Religion

Monday: The Moral Majority and the rise of the Religious Right

Reagan’s Words: the “Evil Empire” speech

Wednesday: abortion laws and debates; President Obama’s religious language.

Friday (Media Studies only):

Week Six: Reagan and Race

Monday: “State’s Rights” and “welfare queens”; crime and the War on Drugs; Willie Horton; The Cosby Show.

Reagan’s Words: Philadelphia, MS speec

Wednesday: colorblindness; legalization of marijuana; Ferguson and policing

Friday (Media Studies only): The Cosby Show, “The March”; Willie Horton campaign ad; “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five

Week Seven: Reagan’s Crises

Monday: the Iran-Iraq War; the Iran-contra Affair; the Oliver North hearings; the AIDS epidemic

Reagan’s Words: speeches on the Iran-contra Affair

Wednesday: Iran and Iraq, today; gay rights and gay marriage; executive power.

Friday (Media Studies only): And the Band Played On

Week Eight: Wrap-Up

Monday: the end of the Cold War; the election of George H. W. Bush; the Persian Gulf War; the Rodney King riots; the economy; the election of Bill Clinton.

Wednesday: presentation of projects; discussion on the legacy of Reagan

Friday (Media Studies only): presentation of projects

Assignments & Homework

Weekly Homework: After each class session on Monday, post in the forum on the class Moodle page. Reflect on the material you learned in class on Monday: what surprised you? What pleased you, or disappointed you? Why do you think Reagan did what he did? How does this connect to the present day? Each forum post is worth ten points, five for reflection on Monday’s material and five for drawing connections to the present day (this also prepares you to discuss in class on Wednesday).

Media-studies extension: forum posts due every Friday before class about how the selection for the day reflects the Reagan era. Five points each.

Final Project: research one of the seven topics we covered in class this summer. If possible, pick a topic no one else is doing, and be sure to go well beyond what we covered in class. Come up with a thesis about the influence of Reagan or his era. Present that thesis and the information you've found in one of the following ways:

  • a formal history essay
  • a fictional commemorative speech by President Reagan, or a eulogy for him (if writing a speech for him, be sure to match his speaking style; if writing a eulogy, write from the perspective of a current politician)
  • a history lesson on Reagan from the year 2045 (be sure to include fictional details about “recent history” and include appropriate audiovisual aids)
  • a script for an 80s movie or TV episode (filming optional; you could also just film the trailer, but if so, pace it to look like a trailer)
  • some other format! But clear it with Mr. C first.
  • Media Studies: If you are doing the cultural extension, your work must include examples from 1980s films, TV, or other media (novels, songs, music videos, etc.), unless you’re doing a script yourself.

    Copyright 2015 by Paul Christiansen. Permission to download or print this material is granted solely to members of Scholars Online currently enrolled in Cursus Scriptorum or prospective students & families, for personal study. All other use or redistribution constitutes violation of copyright.