United States History: What Is Important To Know And Why?

What do the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution say and mean and why do people continue to disagree?
What do the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution say and mean and why do people continue to disagree?

This is my July 4th Independence Day blog. It is too long so I am going to post in two-parts. Part 1 focuses on my approach to teaching history and the over-arching question, “What is Important to Know and Why about United States History?” Because it is my “July 4th” blog, I include an excerpt from a speech by Frederick Douglass. Part 2, which I will post next week, will include a series of quotes from primary source documents from America’s past that illustrate the points I want to make about United States history.

One of the issues politicians and so-called educational reformers do not want to confront is the sharp disagreement in the country about how to interpret the past, explain the present, and plan for the future. But how to interpret the past, explain the present, and plan for the future is exactly what students should be exploring in secondary school social studies classes especially in a nation where they will be expected to participate as active citizens in the decision making process.

My approach to teaching and learning history, which is not unique, is based on essential questions, documents, and debates. It cannot be scripted because it relies on strong teacher content knowledge and the ability to ask questions that stimulate students to reconsider their ideas, support positions with evidence, and listen to and respond to points made by others. Lessons must be planned and structured, but teaching must be flexible. Teachers have to feel comfortable enough in their own ability and knowledge that they can listen to what students are saying and respond in ways that challenge them to think.

As a high school social studies teacher and as a teacher educator I always begin thinking about teaching with the same question. What is important to know and why? What bears mentioning? What requires a lesson? What topics demand an entire unit? What themes should continually be revisited over the course of a year? There is tremendous pressure to race through epochs and regions, dictating names and dates, with little time available for an in-depth exploration of concepts and historical themes, the evaluation of primary and secondary sources, and for students to draw their own historical conclusions. Teachers continually make choices, which brings us back to the question: What is important to know and why?

I believe secondary school social studies classes should focus on a few overarching essential questions that can be integrated into the entire curriculum and reexamined in different historical and contemporary contexts. These questions should be amenable to school boards in Texas and Alabama as well as in New York, Massachusetts, and California. If they are not, then we better get rid of those school boards.

1. How do we create a more just society?

2. How should we interpret the United States Constitution?

3. How do we preserve and extend democracy in the United States?

4. What is the responsibility of government?

5. What is an American?

I have strong positions on each of these questions, but my goal is not to convince students to agree with me. If students are easily swayed by me, they will only agree with the next speaker or teacher they hear and will not develop as active citizens. Many teachers and administrators believe they must remain absolutely neutral during discussion and debate, but I have a different view. Teachers need to model for students how to participate in discussion, state a position, support it with evidence, and respond civilly to the ideas of others. As a rule, I offer my views when I feel they will open students up to consider ideas that they are ignorant of or tend to ignore, but I do not if I feel they will close down discussion.

Students should be introduced to these essential questions at the beginning of the school year and the questions need to be reconsidered throughout the curriculum. Students should continually read and analyze commentaries on these issues that require both close reading of primary source documents and contextual understanding, skills and knowledge. They also need to support ideas with evidence. Teachers, districts, politicians, and parents need to be aware and accept that students will probably not come up with the interpretations and conclusions they want to hear. That is the risk of preparing students for participation in a democracy.

In 1852, Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, writer, and orator, who escaped from slavery as a young man, was asked to deliver a 4th of July speech in Rochester, New York. In his opening, Douglass announced his topic was “AMERICAN SLAVERY,” and that in his speech he would discuss “this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view.” The key questions for me are whether Douglass’ critique of race relations in the United States continues to have meaning today, if they do, why, and how do we create a more just society?

Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” (July 5, 1852)

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

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