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AP Comparative Government and Politics Course Perspective

by Jean Robinson
Indiana University Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

Please note: The official College Board® Course Description is available below in "More."

Why should you teach the AP Comparative Government and Politics course? Your students are more likely to be interested in taking the AP U.S. Government and Politics course. From their perspective, the U.S. course seems a natural lead-in to college-level courses, it is politically relevant, they know what American politics means, and the course appears to be a continuation of the U.S. history and civics or citizenship courses that they have already taken. In other words, although AP U.S. "GoPo" is definitely a wonderful course, students are signing up for the familiar rather than trying a completely new experience.

AP Comparative Government and Politics, though ‑‑ well that is a whole 'nother kettle of fish! Students often do not know, even at the university level, what comparative politics is. Comparative politics isn't about international diplomacy or war, and so it doesn't always end up on the evening news. Rather, comparative politics focuses on politics of countries outside the United States. Perhaps this isn't an easy sell, but because we are not only citizens of our own country but more and more citizens of the world, we need to understand, and help our students to understand, what that world is like.

The new and improved AP Comparative Government and Politics course (introduced in 2005-2006) is exciting and indeed necessary for you and your students. Why? Because it is about understanding what makes other societies run. Comparative politics enables us to learn about quite diverse political institutions and processes in cultures and societies with which we are less familiar. It teaches the tools that citizens, as well as students, need to make sense of an increasingly complex and differentiated global environment ‑‑ an environment, say, where a decision a Chinese leader makes about oil investment and market openness can have repercussions in the lives of American consumers.

Teach this course because it gives you as a teacher and your students a firm foundation for becoming an engaged citizen of the world. If we don't understand how theocracies work, if we can't make sense of legal systems that are not based on pluralist constitutions, if we don't understand how inequalities can translate into hatred, then we are doomed to the sidelines of political events. These events are shaping our lives and the lives of others across the globe. We need to have the tools to understand them.

Comparative politics is that tool. The new version of the AP Comparative Government and Politics course focuses more on concepts and on comparison than did previous versions. In emphasizing these two aspects of comparative politics, the course and exam are following the trends in the teaching of comparative politics at colleges and universities. Students who are exposed to political science concepts and encouraged to think about a country's politics in a way that enables comparison and generalization will inevitably become more analytical in their understanding of political events ‑‑ and, not coincidentally, more successful as students.

Some teachers worry that as we become more engaged in teaching concepts and comparisons, we simultaneously lose important information gained from individual country studies. There is, after all, only a limited amount of time to teach the course and learn the material. In some sense this is true. The course requires that we shift our focus from learning lots of discrete facts about countries to learning how the politics in a country can be explained by more general concepts. Thus the Development Committee and the university faculty and high school teachers who developed the new format for the course and exam are well aware that we all need to adjust our expectations about the course and its content and, as a consequence, our expectations about the exam.

The aim is to teach an introductory comparative politics course in high school that is academically rigorous, pedagogically sound, and intellectually engaging. You will be doing this in a time of rapid political and economic change. On top of that, paradoxically, in an age of increasing globalization, more and more of our students have shortened horizons and know little about other cultures and other ideas. So what can you do, faced with a political world that seems to be changing right before our eyes, with a social world in which we need to encourage our students to be more globally aware, and with an academic world in which a new course in AP Comparative Government and Politics demands new skills, new texts, and new ways of teaching and learning?

Let's be clear about what the new course and exam is all about. The AP Comparative Government and Politics course essentially covers both an introduction to comparative politics concepts and the application of these concepts to substantive content about six countries. The course content includes facts about the six countries that form the core of the AP Comparative Government and Politics course ‑‑ Britain, China, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia ‑‑ combined with the conceptual analysis that introduces different ways of organizing politics and their outcomes.

AP Comparative Politics helps students answer questions like: Why are some countries stable democracies and not others? Why do democracies have different party and electoral systems? How do citizens express their interests in an organized fashion, and why does this vary among countries? What is the impact of globalization on domestic politics and economics? What needs to exist before a vibrant civil society can develop in a formerly authoritarian system? What kinds of policies are pursued when governments seek to diminish social inequality? What is the effect of great disparities in wealth and poverty on political order?

As you can tell, these kinds of general questions start from abstract political science concepts ‑‑ stable democracy, for example, or civil society or party system ‑‑ and seek answers by applying information about one or more countries. Using the six core countries as case studies, the AP teacher can help students move from an abstract definition of concepts to concrete examples and applications. It is essential that AP teachers use the curriculum outline in a dynamic way. That outline focuses on six essential themes: how to compare, the nature of authority and power, political institutions and processes, citizen roles and the state, political and economic change, and policy responses. Teachers need to help students integrate these themes and their various components with relevant and current information from one or more of the core countries.

In talking with teachers of comparative politics at both the high school AP level and the college level, I am regularly asked how to teach about countries that seem to be constantly undergoing change. How can you find up-to-date material that takes into account, for instance, the most recent military coups in Nigeria or the latest rebellion, election, or economic crisis in Mexico? How can you cover the threats to democratic development in Russia and overcome the datedness of the reading material you assign to students? Or what if there is a complete change in leadership in Beijing just before you have started the section on China?

Introductory comparative politics courses at the college and university level often use a combination of textbook and supplementary materials to help students understand what concepts mean in practice. Since many AP teachers are not able to use the latest editions of textbooks, and since many textbooks do not cover all six core countries, the College Board has made available an extensive variety of supplemental materials. These include briefing papers on individual countries and on new, widely used concepts, brief summaries of recent significant events written by prominent political scientists, sample syllabi, a new collection of essays on "Teaching the Comparative Method," and an extensive collection of reviews of books, articles, films, Web sites, and other resources on AP Central.
  AP Comparative Government and Politics Course Home Page

The successful course does not rely on every student having the latest edition of a comparative politics textbook. Rather, the successful course relies on AP teachers who are ready to help students learn how to make sense of unexpected as well as predictable political events and outcomes. It is true that politics around the globe seem to change at an ever-increasing pace. We should remember, however, that this isn't a course about current events but rather one that uses contemporary politics as a way to learn about political analysis. AP Comparative Government and Politics should shift the focus from data-dumps about countries or current events to learning how to make reasonable comparisons and how to connect conceptual ideas with real politics. Use what is happening outside the classroom and fit it into a conceptual analysis of what politics is about and how effectively or ineffectively political institutions and processes work.

With the supplementary materials, many of which are available from AP or on the Internet, the extensive Course Description, and the curriculum outline, AP teachers will be able to make comparative politics as essential as U.S. politics and simultaneously immerse students in a compelling and exciting subject. We know that once students are introduced to comparative politics, they are hooked! Students grow when they are challenged. Students flower when they learn new skills and ideas. Students excel when they are motivated to make sense of the new and the unknown. The AP Comparative Government and Politics course is exactly the vehicle for bringing out the best in your students and in the process making us all better citizens in this new interconnected global environment.

Jean Robinson is professor of political science and East Asian studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She served on the Development Committee for AP Government and Politics from 1992 to 1999, and again in 2001-2002. She chaired the Development Committee from 1996 to 1999. She has been a Reader, a Table Leader, and a Question Leader at multiple AP Readings and has also been the AP Central content adviser for AP Comparative Government and Politics.

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