IMPACT: The Research Magazine for John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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Andrea Balis’s playful approach to history helps young learners think critically

Author: Rachel Friedman


“The more you know, the easier it is to learn something new.”

Long before the Trump impeachment was above the fold of every newspaper, Assistant Professor of History Dr. Andrea Balis had impeachment on her mind. The Watergate burglary that embroiled America’s 37th President Richard M. Nixon in scandal is part of the American cultural lexicon. But Balis noticed that many of her students came to class with gaps in their understanding of that key period in 20th century American history. So she set out to fill them.

Published on the 45th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, Bringing Down a President—written for middle-grade students—takes readers through the story of Watergate, from Nixon’s childhood ambitions to his resignation from the presidency, in snippets of dialogue and plain-spoken narration. Though it’s a departure from traditional academic writing, the history is heavily sourced. Clocking in at just under 200 pages, the book contains more than 300 footnotes. Balis and her co-author, Elizabeth Levy, spent months sifting through primary source material to fill in quotes that perfectly illustrated the story they wanted to tell about the Nixon Administration’s corruption and the “sense of anti-democratic impulse” that permeated the whole affair.

Bringing Down a President takes an unusual and engaging approach to history: it tells the story from the point of view of its main actors, and in their voices. The authors wanted to bring the story to life. “But we kept stressing in our book that just because someone said it doesn’t mean it’s true,” says Balis. “It’s crucial to be a critical understander of events, to remember that people lie.”

Balis holds a growing conviction that classroom learning should be about the joy of critical thinking, not just content mastery. Bringing academic knowledge and research out of the ivory tower gives students the tools they need to engage and learn at a college level. And the lesson doesn’t just apply to middle and high school students. “We wanted to write a book that many people would read,” she says. “That line between scholarly and non-scholarly is very porous. Adults that read the book say they learned a lot.”

Although Balis and Levy had the idea to write this book long before Donald Trump became the third President impeached by the House of Representatives, its publication ended up being very timely, and there are lessons to be learned by students of history living in the present day. Although they decided not to include Trump quotes in the book, the authors saw many similarities between Nixon’s day and our own.

“We don’t predict the future,” says Balis, “we tell the story and explain it. It’s not that people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it; it’s that people who don’t know history don’t have insight into what’s going on around them.”

In a day when misinformation and partisanship abound, being a critical observer is more important than ever. Though some celebrate Watergate as a success of Constitutional checks and balances, Balis’s book holds a warning that “the cynicism and skepticism of our current political culture has its roots in the years of the Nixon scandals.” Understanding the historical context may now be key to keeping the checks and balances vital to the health of our republic strong.

BRINGING DOWN A PRESIDENT: THE WATERGATE SCANDAL by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy; illustrated by Tim Foley. Text copyright © 2019 by Andrea Balis and Elizabeth Levy. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Tim Foley. Reprinted by permission of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing
Holdings Limited Partnership. All Rights Reserved.