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Learning to See America

I discuss teaching U.S. history through primary sources at Great Hearts schools:

"As for the particular question of teaching American history, Bergez admits there’s something paradoxical about applying a classical approach. Ancient thinkers like Thucydides thought history was not simply old things being displaced by new things, but “something permanent and perennial revealing itself.” But Americans often think of themselves as an exception or aberration. This nation is “A New Order of the Ages,” something new under the sun. Can American texts like presidential addresses be studied in continuity with older great works? Bergez thinks Lincoln’s speeches, saturated with Biblical imagery, show how American history lives in a larger tradition. “There is some sort of heritage there that we don’t escape from and I don’t think we want to.”

The choice of texts is an important consideration for every teacher. There are more fascinating primary sources dealing with American history than can fit into a ninth-grade Humane Letters course. Teachers hit on different ways to offer students a window into the American story. Joseph Labadie at Scottsdale Prep, for example, structures his class around a pattern of foundations and challenges.

In the first quarter, says Labadie, the focus is on the founding of the United States. In the second quarter, students see the constitutional order shaken and tested by the great debates over slavery and the Civil War. A similar pattern governs the second half of the year. The third quarter sees new foundations laid, as Americans reconsider the role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary citizens (the Progressive Era, the New Deal) and the role of the U.S. on the international stage (both World Wars). In the fourth quarter, those commitments are put on trial by the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. This structure helps determine which texts and periods receive particular emphasis—Labadie says that the letter to Abraham Lincoln from Hannah Johnson (on behalf of black Union soldiers like her son) always prompts a good discussion tying into the semester’s overall theme of Americans adjudicating who “We the People” really encompasses.

The culmination of Labadie’s class is a seminar on this topic: “What aspect of American history could help define one’s moral compass?” (He instructs students not to focus on the atomic bomb in this discussion, since it would otherwise take over the whole conversation—besides, they’ve already debated it at length in the WWII section of the course.) He’s heard a student compare Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech with Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural, saying the lesson from the more favorable public reception of the latter is that when you address a crisis you should offer a strong positive vision, as Reagan did. Labadie feels he’s helping prepare students to do great things in their lives. “These students are going to be leaders,” he says. “I’d like them walking out of this class with some sort of lessons in leadership.”

Tools beyond seminar discussion can add a lot to students’ facility with the ideas at stake in a history class."

The Great Seal of the United States

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