I’ve been teaching about American history and the American system of government for more than 25 years. Like every human story that I know of, it’s filled with imperfections and injustices. This past year, working through the complexity of early American history in the company of 7th graders reminded me again of those complexities and opened my eye to the ways in which adolescent citizens perceive them.
I take the 12 and 13 year olds in my classroom seriously and treat them as equal citizens. In this way, my classroom becomes one where questions and opinions are encouraged and discussed. Through my 47 year old eyes, there are tiers of injustice in American history. The original sins of slavery and the genocide of Native American Indians rank first among them. The inequality of women, immigrants, gays, and society’s most vulnerable are certainly troubling but somehow less venal in my understanding of our history.
Over time, I’ve come to see the many frustrating complexities of American history in the complicated light they represent. I teach the Declaration of Independence and Constitution which followed as bold statements about the shining promise of freedom and equality. It was imperfectly applied on the very first July 4. I believe that over the next 200-plus years, the promise is being haltingly fulfilled for the remainder of society. Because our notions of them change over historical time, freedom and inequality remain a work in progress. That is the power of the ideas first articulated in 1776.
But for the 7th graders with whom I keep company, the line of right and wrong is more stark. On the wrong side of history: slavery, the treatment of Native American Indians, the inequality of women, immigrants, gays, and society’s most vulnerable. Full stop.