Op-Ed: Why Do I Have to Take This Class?

College professors answer student questions. Sometimes the answers are simple, as in, “It’s in the syllabus.” There are questions, however, that may require 17 years of patient research and waiting for new resources to become available.

When I was first hired at West Texas A&M University in 1998, I regularly heard the same question from students in my American National Government classes: Why do I have to take this class? I started teaching American State and Local Government in 2000. A different class produced similar questions.

Thanks to some now-retired colleagues, I formulated a reasonable response to the question. The political science courses are mandated by state law. Texas Education Code Section 51.301 specifies that higher education institutions that “receive state support or state aid from public funds shall give a course of instruction in government or political science which includes consideration of the Constitution of the United States and the constitutions of the states, with special emphasis on that of Texas.”

A student upped the ante one semester around 2004. “Why does the state require the class?” she inquired. I tossed out my well-rehearsed answer, but she wouldn’t accept it. The class had been discussing the job of the legislature including the legislative process. “Why was the bill initially proposed in the Texas Legislature?” she asked.

With the help of the librarians at WT’s Cornette Library, I found that the law was first enacted in 1929 as the result of Senate Bill 99, a proposal introduced by Sen. Julien C. Hyer of Tarrant County. That information satisfied the student, but my curiosity was piqued. Thus began an almost 17-year search for a reason why Sen. Hyer introduced the bill in 1929.

Julien Capers Hyer is a lesser-known character in the story of Texas. He was born in Greenville, S.C., in 1894 and earned a degree from Wofford College in South Carolina and a law degree from Georgetown University. In 1916, Hyer moved to Waco and was admitted to the Texas Bar. He was a veteran of both World War I and World War II.

Moving to Fort Worth after World War I, he married and became involved in community organizations like the Lions Club and the American Legion. Hyer was elected to the Texas Senate in a special election in 1928 and served one term.

Hyer returned to Dallas after World War II, worked in the Veterans Administration and was elected to a number of judicial offices. He moved to Fort Worth in 1973 and died there in 1974.

Employing strategies I learned while helping my mother with some family history combined with new access to online newspaper archives, I was able to search Texas newspapers published in 1929 and 1930. The Feb. 7, 1929, Austin Daily Texan reported on the success of Senate Bill 99 after an amendment. “The bill as amended reads that a course on the constitution will be required in all schools partially or wholly supported by state money.” The article indicates that “the bill is sponsored by the American Legion and the aim of the bill is to educate in hundred percent Americanism.”

Senators William Martin, Alvin Wirtz and Oliver Cunningham proposed an amendment that removed references to “patriotism and duties of a citizen.” The senators were concerned that boards overseeing educational institutions would be incapable of specifying the “correct definition of patriotism.”

From the Daily Texan, “Senator Wirtz stated that patriotism was like religion, the individual must decide upon the acceptability of its definition.”

The Feb. 7, 1929, Dallas Morning News provided a more detailed picture of Senator Wirtz’s argument: “Patriotism may be the genuine article … and then it may be a cloak for something else.” In the debate, Wirtz provided his definition of patriotism: “a reverence for the fundamental principles on which our Government was founded.”

In response, Hyer “declared there could be no difference in the brands of patriotism authorized by the measure.”

I now have a more complete answer to the question raised by the student in 2004. She had to take the class because the Texas Legislature wants her, and all students, to have a greater sense of their place in American government. While it took me a number of years to find a solid answer, I learned a lot about an important Texan.

Dr. Dave Rausch is the Teel Bivins Professor of Political Science at West Texas A&M University. The comments here represent his own opinions and not those of WTAMU

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