Teaching with Cartoons

Looking at Elections through the Cartoonist’s Eye


Wm. Ray Heitzmann

Name a teaching methodology that enlivens lectures, prompts classroom discussion, promotes critical thinking, develops multiple talents and learning styles, helps prepare students for standardized tests ... and even provides humor? The answer: interpreting political cartoons.

The political cartoon (aka editorial) presents a message or point of view concerning people, events, or situations. This form of interpretive artistry makes use of caricature and symbolism to convey the cartoonist’s ideas—sometimes subtly, sometimes brashly, but always quickly.1 A rich and colorful treasure of political cartoons exists to stimulate thinking and enliven discussion of the past and present. Moreover, this treasure is more readily available for use in the classroom than ever before.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to using political cartoons in social studies classrooms. Although teachers often tell me their students enjoy political cartoons, many have doubts as to whether students are really getting the artist’s message. Research mirrors this concern. The 1998 NAEP Civics Report Card found that “students, particularly at the younger grades, tended to find political cartoons difficult to understand.”2 Nor is this only a recent concern. A study conducted as far back as the 1930s concluded that “the individual readers of editorial cartoons must bring a great deal of information to the interpretation process.”3 Put another way, “the individual must have the knowledge base (both historically and visually) to be able to interpret the cartoon.”4

My own experience persuades me that the best strategy for teaching with political cartoons is through a subskills approach that leads students step-by-step to higher orders of critical thinking. Classroom teachers at all levels need to provide students with knowledge of the basics before expecting them to be able to analyze political cartoons. Once the foundation has been laid, the teacher can integrate cartoon lessons throughout a course of study, always making sure that students know enough about the background content to allow for proper interpretation.

A taxonomy of the subskills needed for students to interpret editorial cartoons appears in the chart below. This article will look at two of these subskills in detail: caricature and symbolism.


The Use of Caricature

The most enjoyable aspect of a cartoon—for both artist and audience—is often caricature. By definition, “caricature” is the use of exaggeration to aid the viewer’s recognition of a person or object. Think of Bill Clinton’s chubby face, LBJ’s nose, Ronald Reagan’s pompadour, Michael Dukakis’s eyebrows, and Ross Perot’s ears! Caricature not only denotes a person, but can express an opinion about the subject in and of itself.

Begin by showing students a caricature of a popular figure and ask the class, “Who knows who this is?” Follow up student response with a realistic sketch or photograph of the person shown. Then ask students the following questions: How did you know who this person is? How does the caricature exaggerate one or more aspects of this person? Is the caricature positive, negative, or neutral about this person? What makes you think so? Take students through this process several times using stand-alone caricatures and/or cartoons featuring caricatures of well-known figures.

Ask students to draw a caricature of a famous personality to share with the class. (Since students vary in their ability and confidence in drawing, it’s best to do this on a voluntary basis.) What elements of the caricatures do students find most effective? Why? Since many students struggle with this assignment, you might share with them the observations of British cartoonist Michael Jones in his introduction to the Cartoon History of The American Revolution.

The first major daily problem that far transcends the relatively simple task of drawing is finding the right idea. The cartoonist wakes in the morning and hopes a cartoon-worthy event has happened. If it has, he must digest the happening and form an opinion about it. He must then visualize it into an amusing picture which shows the paradoxical or sardonic aspect ... [H]e allows himself much artistic license, which is another way of describing caricature ... To go further, the cartoonist must so dominate his politicians that he can make them recognizable without showing their eyes, nose or mouth. Of course, not all politicians require such flights of creative imagination as I have just been describing. Some are ready-made caricatures ... 5


The Use of Symbolism

While students may quickly identify the “Golden Arches” or the Nike “Swoosh” as representing aspects of contemporary culture, they are less likely to recognize the meanings of many historical symbols that are critical to political cartoon interpretation. Explain that, for a cartoonist, the “symbo#148; constitutes a type of visual shorthand. Present visuals of some common political symbols in use today: the elephant, the donkey, the dove, the Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, or the White House. Ask students what these symbols mean to them. Then tell students (or assign them to find out) when these symbols came into use. What do students think accounts for their continued meaning to Americans?

Ask students to create their own personal symbols. They might, for example, choose an animal to represent them–a practice common to European aristocrats and Native American youth. Or students may have their own ideas about an appropriate symbol to represent themselves. Have volunteers show their symbols to the class as the basis for discussing the ideas these symbols embody.

Provide students with political cartoons that use symbols. It’s a good idea to begin with cartoons that employ one or only a few familiar symbols. As students gain confidence in identifying symbols and explaining their meaning within a particular context, they may grow not only ready—but eager—to decipher the meaning of symbols used in more difficult cartoons. As students gain confidence, lead them through the use of subskills that demand higher orders of thinking.

The political cartoons that appear in this article all pertain to the electoral process. These cartoons vary in both the familiarity of their symbols and the amount of background context required for their analysis. Older cartoons often contain more verbal clues to understanding, but also require more historical context in order for students to make sense of them. Invite students to bring in cartoons—historical or contemporary—that they like for class discussion and display. Ultimately, the finest use of the editorial cartoon lies in its potential to stimulate interest in, and critical thinking about, both our past and present.


1. Wm. Ray Heitzmann, “The Political Cartoon and the Social Science Teacher,” The Social Studies 65 (1974): 10-11.

2. A. Lutkus, et al., NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1999).

3. L. Shafer, Children’s Interpretations of Political Cartoons (New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1930).

4. M. Hunter, D. Moore, and H. Sewell, “The Effects of Teaching Strategy and Cognitive Style on Student Interpretations of Editorial Cartoons,” Journal of Visual Literacy 11 (1991): 35-55.

5. Michael Wynn Jones, Cartoon History of the American Revolution (New York: Macmillan, 1985).



Bedient, D., and D. Moore. “Student Interpretation of Political Cartoons.” Journal of Visual Verbal Languaging 5 (1985): 19-36.

Carl, L. “Editorial Cartoons Fail to Reach Readers.” Journalism Quarterly 45 (1968): 533-5.

DeSousa, M., and M. Medhurst. “The Editorial Cartoon as Visual Rhetoric: Rethinking Boss Tweed,” Journal of Visual and Verbal Languaging 2 (1982): 43-52.

Editorial Cartoons by Kids (annual). Madison, WI: Zino Press. Contact: Knowledge Unlimited, PO Box 52, Madison, WI 53701.

Heitzmann, W. R. “Historical Cartoons: Opportunities to Motivate and Educate,” Insight 8 (1995):2-4.

—————. “The Power of Political Cartoons in a Presidential Year.” History Matters 9 (1996): 1,5.

—————. “Thomas Nast Cartoons: Opportunities to Educate and Motivate,” The Journal of the Thomas Nast Society 4 (1990): 33-9.

Johnstone, J., and E. Nakhleh. “Attitudes of Gifted Students Toward Methods of Teaching.” The History and Social Science Teacher 22 (1987): 193-196.

Steinbrink, J., and D. Bliss. “Using Political Cartoons to Teach Thinking Skills.” The Social Studies 19 (1988): 217-220.

Williams, P., et. al.. NAEP 1994 U.S. History: A First Look. Washington, D.C. Office of Educational Research Improvement, U.S. Department of Education., 1995.


Political Cartoon Sources

Books and Periodicals

Auth, T. Between the Lines. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. This work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist offers insights into his life and includes many of his classic cartoons. Auth’s most recent book, Lost in Space: The Reagan Years (Kansas City, MO: Anders-McMeel, 1988), provides an update on his thinking and drawing.

Barton, M.A., and P.C. Barton. Campaign: A Cartoon History of Bill Clinton’s Race for the White House. Fayetteville, AR: The University of Arkansas Press, 1993. A chronologically-arranged collection of editorial cartoons from around the country focusing on Presidential Clinton and his opponents. Each cartoon contains an explanatory comment.

Brooks, C. Best Editorial Cartoons. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, Annual. An annual compilation of cartoons from over one hundred cartoonists in the United States and Canada. The collection focuses on the major issues of the year, providing teachers and students with varying editorial viewpoints depending upon the cartoonist’s political and geographical biases. The excellent quality of the yearly volumes has remained constant.

Keller, M. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. An outstanding collection of Nast’s cartoons, which can be reproduced or easily copied (with permission). Most cover a large page (81/2” x 11”), and several, two pages. The range of the subjects treated, the quality of the cartoons, and Nast’s influence make this an excellent addition to any library.

Szabo, J. The Finest International Political Cartoons of Our Time. North Wales, PA: Witty World Publications, 1994. An extremely well-done work featuring cartoonists nationally and globally. The section on the Clinton presidency and international affairs will be especially valuable to educators.

Wilson, C. Drawn To The Issues. Los Angeles: Privately Published, 1991. (Drawn To The Issues, 857 E. 115th St., Los Angeles, CA 90059.) A selection from one of the nation’s premier African American political cartoonists. The drawings focus on topics from race relations and discrimination to California politics and foreign policy.


Teaching Aids

Appel and Appel. The Distorted Image. New York: Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rth, 1980. An excellent sound (cassette) filmstrip that shows anti-minority cartoons and illustrations that appeared in publications from 1850-1922. The drawings show clearly the danger of negative stereotyping and caricature.

Cartoon News. P.O. Box 698, Greenwich, CT 06836. A periodical that contains approximately 90 contemporary worldwide cartoons in each issue. Each drawing has a series of accompanying questions. A teacher’s supplement provides answers.

Documentary Photo Aids. P.O. Box 956, Mt. Dora, FL 32757. This small company provides many fine collections of editorial cartoons useful for posting on bulletin boards (11x14 inch format). Among the sets available are “Classic American Political Cartoons,” “A Cartoon View of Domestic Issues,” “A Cartoon History of U.S. Foreign Policy,” “Theodore Roosevelt in Cartoons,” and “Cartoon History of Presidential Elections.” The quality of the cartoons is excellent.

Heitzmann, W.R. 50 Political Cartoons for Teaching U.S. History. Culver City, CA: Social Studies School Service, 1975. (P.O. Box 802, Culver City, CA 90232-0802. www.socialstudies.com). A series of 81 2” x 11” posters containing cartoons from Ben Franklin’s “Unite or Die” to Edmund Valtman’s “Later-My Brother is Watching” (a commentary on détente). Designed to be used from elementary through graduate school, the reverse side of each poster outlines the cartoon’s background and suggestions for classroom use.

Miller, E. “Gender and Politics and the Editorial Cartoon” (video). New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 1992. This video focuses largely on the vice-presidential candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro as revealed through the “magic” of the editorial cartoon.

Understanding and Creating Editorial Cartoons. Madison, WI: Knowledge Unlimited, 1989. A resource notebook that provides information on the steps necessary for students to interpret and draw cartoons. A number of cartoons are included that demonstrate each concept. This organization conducts an annual contest for students, Editorial Cartoons by Kids.

The Way Editorial Cartoons Work. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith, 1995. This book, which includes cartoons and transparencies, examines many of the tools used by cartoonists (symbolism, stereotyping, etc.). This company publishes a number of teaching materials relating to cartoons.


Political Cartoons on the Web

Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, www.detnews.com/AAEC/AAEC.html. An organization serving full-time editorial cartoonists, student cartoonists, and others with a professional interest in cartooning. Includes links to cartoonists and other organizations.

Block, H. (Herblock), www.washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/politics/herblock/herblock.htm. The site for the current dean of American editorial cartoonists.

Chris Hiers Cartoonery, www.cartoonery.com. A site featuring animated cartoons by the online editorial cartoonist for Fox News.

Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonist Index, www.cagle.slate.msn.com. A site with links to hundreds of cartoonists worldwide and thousands of cartoons. Most important, it links to “Teacher Guide,” managed by middle school educator Peg Cagle.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cartoon Archives Home Page, www.nisk.k12.ny.us/fdr. A site created as an interdisciplinary project by the Advanced Placement History and Computer Mathematics classes at Niskayuna High School in N.Y. Topics of cartoons include: Waiting for the New Deal, The First 100 Days, Alphabet Soup, and the War Year ’42 and ’43.

Jeff MacNelly Editorial Cartoons, www.macnelly.com/editorial.html. A must for midwesterners, this site provides many examples of MacNelly’s work and includes an archives.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs (P&P) Online Catalog, lcweb2.loc.gov/pp/pphome.html. This website contains thousands of political cartoons from different LC collections. The upside is their abundance and historical descriptions. The downside is that most images now display only as thumbnails and need enlargement.

Monet’s Political Cartoon List, www.magi.com/%7Edmonet/toons.html. There are over 30 international editorial cartoon sites organized here. Countries represented include: the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Ireland, Russia, and Mexico.

National Cartoon Society, www.reuben.org. An organization of professional cartoonists made up of over 600 of the world’s professionals. It includes links to related societies and associations.

WAMS: Political Cartoon Links, www.paupack.ptd.net/wams/polcarto.htm. This site offers links to a wide variety of sources on political cartoons and their history.


About the Author

Ray Heitzmann, a professor of instructional methodology at Villanova University,

Villanova, PA, is a longtime proponent of teaching critical thinking through

editorial cartoon interpretation.

Guidelines for Selecting Political Cartoons for Classroom Use


Excellent guidance in choosing political cartoons is provided by Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf in A Century of Political Cartoons, which outlines the requirements of a “really good political cartoon.”

The first requirement, “wit or humor,” is usually obtained by “exaggeration and should be slick and not merely done for comic effect.” Surely, most contemporary cartoons meet this criterion, as did the classics of Thomas Nast, Joseph Keppler, and others.

Secondly, the cartoon must have a foundation in truth, that is, the characters must be recognizable to the viewer and the point of the drawing must have some basis in fact even if it has a philosophical bias. The success of a cartoon is intimately tied to the recognizability of its caricature(s). Caricature recognition has plagued many an artist: while Nast’s Boss Tweed, John T. McCitcheon’s Teddy Roosevelt, and David Levine’s LBJ are instantly understood, Herbert L. Block’s (Herblock’s) Gerald Ford takes longer for the viewer to associate with the former president. On the other hand, Herblock’s Nixon was identifiable to the extent that the late president was reported to have said “I have to erase that Herblock image.”

The third requirement is moral purpose, for “without moral earnestness no cartoonist is likely to give his work the quality of universality or permanency.” Unfortunately, some of our contemporary cartoonists seem most interested in getting a “quick laugh” with an offensive, heavy-handed, and negative cartoon; but adding comic relief to the editorial page satisfies only one criterion for the political cartoon, which has a more significant purpose.

This author would like to add a fourth requirement: educators should think of political cartoon interpretation as a skill, and the selection of cartoons should consequently follow the taxonomy provided in this article by which students learn subskills (i.e., recognizing caricature) that are reinforced as new skills are added.

Allan Neving, A Century of Political Cartoons

(NY: Scribner’s, 1994). Out of print.