Updated: Jul 23
What is an American Government course about?
Most colleges offer American Government as an introductory Political Science course and it is the most widely taken course at the undergraduate level in Political Science. Some colleges refer to it as “American National Government” or “American Political System” and the Advance Placement (AP) course is known as “United States Government and Politics.”
The course is broad in content. It covers everything you need to know about the structure of American government, the nature of political participation, the constitution, civil rights and liberties and the media. Some broader themes of Political Science are introduced, but because most people in the class are probably not Political Science majors, they aren’t explored at great depth at this point.
What Type of Assignments are Given in an American Government Course
Since it is an introductory course, generally a textbook is used but it sometimes is taught with outside readings. Assignments vary by instructor, but generally college professors keep this course quite vanilla. There probably will be a short or medium length paper, a midterm, and a final. Overall, American Government is an easy college course.
Should I take an American Government Course?
My answer is yes, naturally, but whether you should take probably depends on what you are trying to get out of college. The course is valuable if you are interested in politics, political participation and helps students become better citizens by increasing their civic knowledge. It touches upon rights and court cases, so it is absolutely necessary for anyone interested in studying law. The course probably fills a liberal arts elective and transfers pretty easily from college to college. It’s usually an easy “A” if you complete assignments and do the readings.
Here is a list of topics that are generally taught in an American Government course.
1. The United States Constitution
American Government can be taught in a variety ways and there is not standard order that topics need to be covered in. However, the first unit of a course is almost almost always about the constitutional foundation of American Government and it has the feel of an American history class. Generally, this part of the course covers how the Articles of Confederation produced a weak and unstable foundation for the national government which led to Shays’ Rebellion just prior to the Constitutional Convention. A review of the ideas circulating at the convention, from the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, Great Compromise, etc. will be covered in this part of the course. Finally, the constitutional document itself will be analyzed. Sometimes, federalism is included in this part of the course, or sometimes it is taught separately. Federalism examines the relationship between the national and state governments and probably warrants its own separate unit.
2. The Three Branches of Government and the Bureaucracy
The three branches of the federal government are the executive, legislative and judicial branches. You might also refer to these as the president, Congress, and the courts. Your instructor will likely spend a lot of time on each branch of government and this could take several weeks of the course to cover. Describing the function of each branch is essential. Explaining the relationship between the branches vis-à-vis checks and balances and separation of powers is also essential. The branches of government, once taught, never really go away in an American Government course. They are weaved in and out of each unit, so most instructors make sure to teach these early in the course. Bureaucracy, which is part of the executive branch, will likely also be taught here. Although it may seem boring, it is probably one of the most relevant parts of the course since the government we interact with most is the bureaucracy. This is very useful for students interested in how public policy affects business.
3. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
After covering the Supreme Court and the judicial branch, there is a natural segue to Civil Rights and Liberties. In an American Government course you will learn about landmark Supreme Court decisions related to civil rights and liberties as well as controversial issues surrounding the application of civil rights and liberties. Civil liberties are different from civil rights. Civil liberties are individual rights such as freedom of speech whereas civil rights are the rights of groups of people to be treated fairly and equally under the law. That distinction is key and your instructor probably will insist you be able to recognize the difference. In addition to understanding applications of the Bill of Rights and other civil liberties, you will also be required to know some information about various civil rights movements in the United States.
4. Political Parties, Interest Groups, and Social Movements.
Political scientists refer to parties, interest groups, and social movements as “linkage institutions” which is a key term in this course. Linkage institutions connect citizens to the political system so that they can participate in politics. At this point, the course turns to participation and each of the these linkage institutions will be examined in depth. Political parties will likely take up the most time, as these are the most important linkage institutions. A short history of the party system might be included as well as the role of parties, 3rd parties, and state party organizations.
Interest groups also will be discussed in depth. You will need to know the types of interest groups, how they organize people and influence politicians. Social movements are sometimes squeezed in here and covered in less depth mainly because they are bit more ephemeral and less well understood than interest groups.
Elections are sometimes covered early with institutions, other times they are taught last. Elections are crucial to understanding Congressional behavior and presidential politics. They are weaved throughout the parts of the course on linkage institutions. Even so, a more in depth examination of elections is warranted. Elections probably are taught alongside parties, since parties are most concerned with elections.
6. The Media
The media is also a linkage institution but is quite different from the other ones in that it does not directly interact with citizens. Well, that may have been true for until about a decade or so ago when social media entered the landscape. How teachers present media probably varies. This is the part of the course that changes most rapidly, and a lot of the conventional wisdom and knowledge seems outdated. A thorough discussion about how social media activism has affected politics will take place here, and because it is so new, it will likely raise more questions than answers. Understanding how broadcast media is regulated is important as well.
7. Public Policy
Public policy is the wild card of the course. Read a textbook and there will be some really dry, theoretical information about how policy is made. Many public policy units in textbooks focus in on one area or public policy. For example, some text examine economic policies and budgeting. Others look at social policies. This tends to be interesting material and useful for most students in their general education studies.
So there are 7 things you will learn in an American Government course. As you can see, the required material in an American Government course helps students become better citizens, more well-rounded employees, and have a better understanding of how the world works. This is why many colleges make American Government a required course.