Teaching Guide: Exploring the Rise of Conservatism

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Rise of Conservatism in the 1980s, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. Using the interviews with Kenneth Adelman and Albert Carnesale and the description of the Strategic Defense Initiative, describe the foreign policy agenda of the Reagan administration. How did it evolve over time? What was its legacy?
  2. Using the letter from Jerry Falwell, the poster, and the cartoon about homelessness, consider how the political climate of the 1980s shaped the Reagan administration’s response to urban issues.
  3. According to the testimony of a former employee of a crack house and Nancy Reagan’s speech, what were the effects of crack cocaine in the 1980s? What efforts were made to combat the epidemic?
  4. What reasons did the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization give for their strike (addressed in the letter from the president of PATCO and news coverage of PATCO? How did the Reagan administration respond to the strike? Why did the administration take this approach?

Classroom activities

Have students read the testimony of a former employee of a crack house and then use online resources such as newspapers to research the contemporary discourse around prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Working in groups, assign them roles such as “supporter of stiff sentencing” and “supporter of programs focused on rehabilitation,” and have them discuss the issue from these positions. Then allow them to propose their own strategies for addressing the crisis around drugs in America today. Such strategies might include funding for social programs, reform of sentencing laws, enhanced border patrols, etc. A potential extra resource for this project is Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press).

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