The study of American history is of little value to students unless it increases their wisdom to deal with the present. What are the heroic deeds, as well as the shameful ones, that have shaped the nation in which we live? An honest look back should open students’ eyes to how current events have evolved and, more importantly, to informed ways of dealing with contemporary issues on a personal as well as a national level.
Every U.S. History textbook I have investigated leaves out or glosses over the embarrassing moments of our past. They present only one point of view: America’s founders, government and Presidents as the “good guys.” Such a cut and dry deception leaves little room for flawed human beings to effect history! How can we consider ourselves up to the task when compared to such icons? In this class we will be bringing primary and secondary sources to bear that show varying points of view.
After examining the past more fairly, you may ask, “What is the value of a government that is at the same time corrupt and courageous, narrow-minded and far-sighted, greedy and generous, right and wrong?”
I would like to propose that the beauty of the United States government lies not in its perfection, but in our freedom to oppose and expose its imperfections.
I found my elementary and high school American history lessons very boring and they left me with a vague sense of helplessness. There seemed no other choice than to be a respectable, patriotic citizen and passively trust the “good guys.” Because my education failed to stir my interest, I did not vote for years. I knew I was too uninformed to make an intelligent decision at the polls. Why didn’t I become informed? It was, in part, because I rationalized that my vote would not make a difference anyway, but mostly it was because the process of learning anything of national import had always been tedious and remarkably dull. The prospect of finding out what was really at stake in any given proposal left me totally apathetic. Apathy is the most damaging result of our sugarcoated textbooks, which present a dead and done history instead of a living and evolving one.
The good news for students is that I have shifted away from having them memorize long lists of names and dates that are often nothing more than trivia. (Most of today’s students still believe beyond a doubt that Betsy Ross made the first American flag and George Washington chopped down the cherry tree!) Instead we are going to focus on the “hinges of history,” as historian Thomas Cahill calls them. These are events that have changed the course of our history and formed our national psyche. All of these monumental issues were, and still are, controversial.
The bad news here is for students who say, “Just tell me what I need to know for the test.” These students are comfortable with the familiar educational pattern of “memorize and regurgitate.” This thoughtless method is an atrocious way to study history, yet it is the norm. Such students tend to be frustrated by research, debate and subjective test questions. Sadly for them, these methods will be the underpinning of this class.
My challenge to all students beginning this course is to get excited about thinking, analyzing, evaluating and expanding your perspective. These qualities will develop your wisdom and character. They will also make you and your life much more interesting!