Great American inquiry

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The 4th of July and recent current events get us thinking about what makes America great and what makes a great American.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking way to engage students in discussion and get to know a new group of them, an inquiry into this might be a great place to start!

Ask them what they think:

Give students a piece of paper like this and a few minutes to think about it.

Encourage them to draw, hashtag, or pick a few words to represent their thoughts (or record themselves, design a collage, or survey others if you have more time).

You might want to show them something more international beforehand to get them thinking, under the assumption that showing something more American right away might lead them to believe you’re looking for a particular answer.

(insert joke about what “fervor” looks like when singing your school song, for instance)

Then, have students share what they drew or wrote and why!

Here’s a great list of discussion strategies. Or search and filter strategies from this comprehensive site.

This will not only get everyone thinking about American values and access to those ideals but also help you get to know your students as their reflections will probably mirror some of these, which you could also utilize in class:

For a deeper dive on “Are you an American?” see this article too.

Give a few quick historical thoughts:

President Harry Truman said we are “built on courage, on imagination, and an unbeatable determination.”

Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said “America is another name for opportunity.”

Historian David Kennedy said “The American story is all about individual aspiration and achievement… We can become whoever we want to be. We can go wherever we want to go. It’s part of our national myth.”

A really smart woman named Marilyn vos Savant said the essence of America is “Finding and maintaining that perfect, delicate balance between freedom ‘to’ and freedom ‘from’.

And former slave Frederick Douglas addressed the gap between U.S. ideals and the reality we see every day by asking, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?

Dive Deeper down one of the following paths…

  • Utilize a great case study like the American flag:
  • Exploit the recent explosion of the ‘Merica!” marketing culture to bring up a few more fun topics about American law and culture:

For example, What’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism?

  • Get a few examples from this thread about how the idea of “American” has evolved over time:

Paul Krugman pointed to a Global Nation story about the lynchings of Italian Americans at the turn of the century: “Now, some descendants of those same immigrants are among those taking violently anti-immigrant positions in the name of national purity.”

“Over the years, many groups have been singled out for exclusion or persecution. The Know Nothing Party targeted Germand and Irish immigrants in the mid 1800s, Chinese immigrants were excluded for 60 years, Japanese immigrants and US citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated and stripped of property and rights in World War II, and the long enslavement of Africans denied generations of their rights as Americans. Kanye West aside, myths and denials about that history abound to this day.

While advocates fight to remember these mistakes of our past, and not subject other group to the kinds of exclusion so many have experienced, the debate over what is “American” continues on many levels.

We’re talking about representation, identity and many other topics in the Global Nation Exchange on Facebook. Don’t miss Ju-Hyun Park’s brave and eloquent discussion of what it’s like to be Korean in America during the time of “Rocket Man,” a candid discussion of a new restaurant called “Yellow Fever,” and a good conversation about what to wear, and what not to wear, to prom” (from Angilee Shah, Global Nation).

  • Ask more specific questions related to American citizenship and then dive into a little research on it:

For example, What are the responsibilities of good citizenship?

and/or Why do you think people seem so divided in the United States today?

Conclude the lesson and leave curious:

You’ll see that being a good American means different things to different people, but there’s definitely something unique about being one that we all should keep in mind…

  • No other revolution in world history was as successful in establishing representative government.

The decades we call the American Revolution successfully transferred power to a new government and eventually created political legitimacy like no other.

These memories provide identity, comfort, and importance, especially as a civic sacredness developed around people and objects associated with the Revolution. Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address a month before the Civil War broke out, for instance, pleaded with southern states to remain united through the “mystic chords of memory”:

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Also remind students that we’ll spend the next two centuries sometimes killing each other over differing interpretations of — and access to — the ideals of Equality, Rights, Liberty, Opportunity, and Democracy established during the Revolution.

From day one in your class, help them see (as F. Scott Fitzgerald said) that “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” (And that critical and historical thinking will be essential in your class!)

Here are some links to help with that before or after class too:

Maybe we really be asking: “What does it mean to BECOME a great American?

This scene from the movie “Argo” about the CIA’s use of a fake Sci-Fi movie to rescue Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979 might sum it up best:

Jack O’Donnell (played by Bryan Cranston): President Carter said you were a great American.

Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck): “A great American what?

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