Discussion Questions

These questions will help students explore the major ideas and themes in the program. See the Program Summary for descriptions of specific program segments.

Before Watching
1. Reagan once said, "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Write this statement on the board and ask students if they agree or disagree with it. After brainstorming a list of federally-funded programs, discuss the impact of federal, state, and local government on everyday life. What are the benefits of government programs? What are the drawbacks? Create a chart listing the pros and cons of "big" government. (You may also want to ask students to review how the role of government has changed since the beginning of the 20th century.)

2. Introduce the concept of "supply-side economics" to the class. What do students think of this theory? What groups do they think would benefit from this economic idea? Which groups might be hurt by it? As they watch the film, have students consider the success or failure of this economic theory.

3. Ronald Reagan was sometimes called the "Teflon" president -- scandal and controversy didn't seem to "stick" to him and he remained popular. He was also called the "Great Communicator" -- someone who had the ability to appeal to people through his anecdotes and rhetoric. Discuss the meaning of these two labels with students. As they watch the program, have them note instances where they think each label applies. Ask them to observe how Reagan's personality and behavior helped earn him these nicknames. How did these attributes affect Reagan's presidency?

After Watching
1. Review the chart created above (Before Watching, Question #1). What policies and actions did Reagan take to limit or reduce the size of government? What were the short- and long-term effects of his programs? How did changing the scope of government affect different segments of the American people? Compare and contrast the actual affects of reducing government with the theoretical pros and cons. Ask students if they want to revise the original chart.

2. Review the ideas underlying "supply-side economics." Ask students to analyze Reagan's attempts to apply this theory. Do they feel that it worked? What were the benefits? What were some of the problems? Why did the national debt grow so quickly? Was the tripling of the national debt consistent with Reagan's ideas? Why or why not?

3. Have students evaluate Reagan's presidency. How did his policies and beliefs help or hinder progress domestically? How did his foreign policies harm or improve international relations? Was Reagan responsible for ending the Cold War, as some people assert? Why or why not? Which label -- the "Great Communicator" or the "Teflon president" -- best describes his legacy? How do different segments of the population -- men, women, people of color, and poor people -- feel about Reagan?


Early Career -- Reagan: The Movie

Making movies was an important part of Ronald Reagan's early life. Have students create a movie poster for a film that might be made today about Reagan's life before he became president. Students should consider what characters would appear in such a film, who would play them, who would direct it, and what the title would be. They should also consider what image of Reagan the film maker would present. Students should design their posters and a promotional "blurb." When posters are finished, display them around the class. Ask students to explain the ideas and images they included. In addition to the library, resources for this project include Commencement Address, 1957 -- A Time for Choosing, 1964 -- Problems Facing California, 1967 -- materials in the further reading section of this site, and the program transcript. (Program References: Chapters 3-5)

Presidential Politics -- Create a Television Advertisement

A great deal of Reagan's appeal was in his personal charm and his ability to communicate his idealistic vision of America via television. Have students study speeches in the primary source section of this site -- such as A Time to Choose, 1964 -- Problems Facing California, 1967 -- To Restore America, 1976 -- the First Inaugural Address, 1981 -- The Evil Empire, 1982 --and Brotherhood of Man, 1990 -- the program transcript -- interviews found in the Resources section, and elsewhere. Students can use these materials to create their own scripts for television commercials that would have run during the 1980 presidential campaign. The scripts should include background on Reagan's political experience and his opinions on government regulations, communism, and other major issues. Students should pay special attention to projecting the hopeful, confident optimism that characterized Reagan.

As an alternative to writing a script, students could lay out the commercial on story boards. Then have students share their commercials with the class by reading the script, explaining the story boards, or actually producing their commercials on videotape. (Program References: Chapters 5-11)

Domestic Policy -- An Economic Report Card

Even before he served as governor of California, Ronald Reagan had strong beliefs and specific ideas about the role of the government in the economy. To investigate the success of the application of his ideas when he was president, have students review the Domestic Policy section on this site and the speeches To Restore America, 1976 and The Economic Recovery Program, 1981 to learn about his goals. Then have students compare Reagan's rhetoric to his accomplishments by making a checklist of his proposals and corresponding results. Students will then write a summary of their opinion on his policies, as supported by their checklists, and give Reagan a "grade" on the success of his domestic economic programs. (Program References: Chapters 10-12, 25)

Foreign Policy -- A Timeline Map

The years when Ronald Reagan was president were eventful times in international politics, years which some people feel strengthened U.S. power abroad and brought about the end of the Cold War. To help students develop a picture of the events involving the U.S. in that period, have them first develop a timeline of major events during 1981-1988 (see also the World Timeline) Then have students create a map showing the location of major events in U.S. foreign affairs. Examples include: specific places in the Middle East (such as Beirut, Lebanon) -- Reykjavik, Iceland -- Grenada -- and Nicaragua. Each location on the map should be accompanied by a short summary of the event and an explanation of U.S. actions or involvement. To conclude the activity, have students write a summary giving their opinions on whether or not Reagan's foreign policy (1) did or did not strengthen U.S. power and (2) did or did not cause the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the end of the Cold War.

For the project, students will need an atlas, a blank world map, an almanac or history textbook, as well as materials from this site. (Program References: Chapters 14-26)

Legacy -- Honoring Reagan: Town Meeting

Although Reagan left the White House in 1989, he is still a favorite with many Americans. Some people feel he is responsible for the current strong economy and single-handedly ending the Cold War. Others disagree and view him as the source of many of the economic and social woes of the early 1990s. Using the speeches in the primary sources section (especially Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy, 1987 and Farewell Address, 1988) and the program transcript, have students participate in a class "town meeting," and debate whether or not a national structure or monument should be named or created in honor of Reagan. Does Reagan's presidency deserve such commemoration? Students representing different segments of the American population should include supporting evidence as they argue their points of view. At the end of the "meeting," have students vote on whether or not to create or build a memorial to Reagan, based on the arguments they have heard. (Program References: Part Two)

The Era -- Create a 1980s Crossword Puzzle

To give students the opportunity to gain some in-depth information about the 1980s, have them work independently, in pairs, or in small groups to create a crossword puzzle using the people, places, issues, and events of the times. Students can base their puzzles on the 1980s in general, or they can focus on specific areas, such as Reagan's presidency, society and culture, people, international affairs, and so on. In addition to the library, resources include the speeches in primary sources section (such as The Challenger Disaster, 1986, the Campaign Against Drug Abuse, 1986) and the program transcript.

To facilitate the puzzle creation, you might want to furnish students with several copies of a pre-made grid, which they can then fill in as they build their puzzles. Students should create a blank puzzle and answer key. When puzzles are completed, students can exchange them with a partner and solve them. (Program References: Chapters 9-27)

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to Ronald Reagan and his times:

Read Reagan's autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?,and write a reader's response. Did the book change your opinion of him?

Write a short profile of Nancy Reagan, including her role during her husband's governorship in California and his presidency.

Watch the film Wall Street, made in the 1980s. Write an analysis explaining how the film is evocative of the times.

Examine the controversy surrounding Reagan's visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany. Write your views in a letter to the editor.

Research the events leading up to the air-traffic controllers strike in 1981. Create a news report about the strike and the effect Reagan's actions had on unions in general.

Investigate the history and current status of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), and give an oral report on the project to the class.

What was the war in Grenada about? Write a front-page newspaper story explaining why the U.S. sent troops there. Include a map of the region.

Research and write a report on Alzheimer's Disease -- possible causes, symptoms, treatments, and the status of a search for a cure.

Interview people who were adults when the space shuttle "Challenger" exploded; find out where they were when they heard the news and what they remember about the event.

The 1980s were the decade in which personal computers became affordable and popular. Create a timeline showing the developments in personal computer technology,from its earliest days until now. Extend your timeline to project future inventions and innovations.

Research and write a summary telling the ultimate fates of those involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, such as Oliver North, Fawn Hall, and John Pointdexter. Where are they now?

How would you define "family values"? Compare and contrast your definition with Ronald Reagan's.

James Brady, who was shot and badly injured during the assassination attempt on Reagan, went on to work for gun control. Research the controversy surrounding gun control and the provisions of the Brady Bill, which Clinton helped to pass in 1993 and which was later challenged in the Supreme Court.

What was the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986? Create a chart of its short-term and long-term effects.

3M introduced Post-it Notes® in 1980. Research three other inventions of the 1980s and report on them. Illustrate your report with drawings or pictures from magazines.

Many felt an era had ended when ex-Beatle John Lennon was shot and killed in December 1980. Do you agree? Choose a favorite John Lennon song and perform it in class.

Nancy Reagan supported a "Just Say No" to drugs policy. Write a memo to her outlining your opinion of this approach to drug abuse.

What is a mouse? What is a yuppie? What is insider trading? What other terms became popular in the 1980s? Create a sample glossary.

The game "Trivial Pursuit" was introduced in 1982. Play a few rounds with friends. Then assemble a team to create your own Trivial Pursuit game for the 1980s.

What was the mission of the song "We Are the World"? Describe how the song came to be and then choose one of the performers involved and write a brief biography.

The Statue of Liberty turned 100 in 1986. Research its history, including the poem inscribed on its base by Emma Lazarus. Write your own poem about the monument.

If you were a "couch potato" (a term coined in 1983), what might some of your favorite television shows have been from the 1980s? What trends did the shows reflect?

Read Toni Morrison's Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and write a book review.

Compare and contrast the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Driving Miss Daisy" by Alfred Uhry, with the Academy Award-winning 1989 movie.

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced the world and society during Reagan's presidency, and present a short biography to the class highlighting the person's achievements. Students might also enjoy creating a poster or collage featuring their subject. It could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing the person's life or work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do an oral reading of a speech or an essay.

Roseanne Barr: comedian and actress whose TV show, "Roseanne," portrayed working-class America

Robert Bork: controversial Reagan nominee for the Supreme Court; his nomination was rejected by the Senate

George H. W. Bush: Reagan's vice president and 41st president of the U.S.

Leonid Brezhnev: Soviet leader

Jimmy Carter: 39th president of the United States

Fidel Castro: Cuban revolutionary leader and prime minister

Bill Cosby: comedian and television performer who created "The Cosby Show," one of the top ten shows of the decade

Jerry Falwell: televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority

Geraldine Ferraro: 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee; first woman to be nominated by a major political party

Mikhail Gorbachev: leader of the Soviet Union, who presided over the dissolution of the USSR

John Hinckley, Jr. : gunman who shot Reagan and wounded three others during an assassination attempt

Jesse Jackson: African American activist and presidential candidate in 1984 and 1988

Michael Jackson: popular singer and performer

Muammar el Khadafy: Libyan dictator

Ayatollah Khomeini: fundamentalist Muslim leader who took control of Iranwhen the Shah was deposed

Maya Lin: architect who designed the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial

Christa McAuliffe: New Hampshire school teacher who was killed in the "Challenger" explosion

Peggy Noonan: speech writer for Reagan

Oliver North: presidential aide involved in the Iran-Contra scandal

Manuel Noriega: dictator of Panama, overthrown with U.S. support

Sandra Day O'Connor: Reagan Supreme Court appointee and first woman to serve on that court

Anwar Sadat: president of Egypt

David Stockman: Reagan's budget director, who later wrote a critical book about the president

Margaret Thatcher: Conservative (Tory) prime minister of Great Britain

Desmond Tutu: South African Anglican archbishop and anti-apartheid activist

Lech Walesa: leader of the Polish Solidarity union and then first president of post-communist Poland

Terms to Know

apartheid: the institutionalized system of segregation established in South Africa after World War II; it was gradually dismantled during the early 1990s.

Challenger: The NASA space shuttle that exploded in January, 1986, killing the whole crew, including Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher from New Hampshire.

deregulation: the reduction of government control over previously regulated industries and businesses.

gender gap: a term first appearing in the New York Times to describe the growing tendency for voters to be for or against Reagan's (and other politicians') policies according to gender, with men supporting Reagan, while women did not.

glasnost: the Russian word describing the new feeling of openness in Soviet society that began during the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Iran-Contra affair: the scandal that erupted during Reagan's presidency concerning the administration's secret deal to sell arms to the Iranian government in exchange for the release of American hostages, and then the use of the proceeds to fund anti-Sandinista forces in Nicaragua.

Moral Majority: Fundamentalist Christian political organization founded by Jerry Falwell.

neo-conservatism: a return to the type of conservative thinking popular in the early years of the twentieth century.

perestroika: Russian word describing Mikhail Gorbachev's restructuring of the Soviet economy and government.

Sandinistas: leftist rebels who struggled for control of the Nicaraguan government against the U.S.-backed "Contras."

Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI): often referred to as "Star Wars," because of its somewhat fantastic nature, the proposed defense system that would strike down nuclear missiles targeted at the U.S. before they could impact the ground.

supply-side economics: the economic theory that government can stimulate the economy by cutting taxes and encouraging investment by private citizens and businesses, which in turn will enlarge the economy, bring in greater tax revenue, and reduce government deficits.

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of Ronald Reagan. Each is followed by a series of questions that you may want to raise with your students.

"It is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work -- work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

Questions to Consider:

  • Evaluate Reagan's view on government. Do you agree with his description of what the governmental role should be? Why or why not?


"Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success -- only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free. Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period, contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development."

Questions to Consider:

  • How did Reagan's political initiatives support his words in this quotation?
  • Do you think that the people today have a "personal stake" in the U.S. government?
  • What government controls, if any, do you think should exist?
  • What controls or regulations would you like lifted?


"It was leadership here at home that gave us strong American influence abroad, and the collapse of imperial Communism. Great nations have responsibilities to lead, and we should always be cautious of those who would lower our profile, because they might just wind up lowering our flag."

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you agree that there is a link between what happens domestically and a country's standing internationally?
  • Do you think this quotation is an accurate description of cause and effects between domestic and foreign affairs? Why or why not?


"Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, 'What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.' But the truth is that outside of its legitimate function, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector."

Questions to Consider:

  • What do you think of Reagan's philosophy as described here?
  • Do you agree that the private sector could always out-perform the government?
  • What "legitimate functions" do you think Reagan might be referring to?
  • What services do you think would be better provided by private business than by the government?
  • How is or isn't the first part of this quotation consistent with Reagan's defense spending?


"The years ahead will be great ones for our country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West will not contain Communism, it will transcend Communism. We will not bother to denounce it, we'll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written."

Questions to Consider:

  • How accurate was Reagan in his prediction?
  • Did Reagan's administration contribute to making this prediction come true? Why or why not?
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