Features: History & Social Studies
Amy and Leon Kass

The Meaning of America: A New Approach to Civic Education

Over the course of this year, EDSITEment will be showcasing a series of innovative lessons which use classic American short stories to teach civics. We asked the editors of this new curriculum to introduce the project.

Leon R. Kass, M.D., is the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. Amy A. Kass is Senior Lecturer Emeritus College of the University of Chicago

The Meaning of America is a new curriculum for civic education. It is based on our anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song (co-edited with Diana Schaub), which takes a literary approach to making citizens—one centering on stories and supplemented by great public speeches and patriotic songs.

The Meaning of America aims to demonstrate concretely how short stories can shed light on the meaning of American identity, character, and citizenship . . .

How can we produce citizens who are thoughtfully and knowledgeably attached to our country, devoted to its ideals, and eager to live an active civic life? Studying our documents and learning our history can surely help. But stories are, in our view, even better. We need to furnish our imaginations with true stories of American heroes, stories that inspire emulation and the pride of kinship with those who have nobly gone before—the stories of Washington and Lincoln, of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. But we also can benefit greatly from fictional stories that not only inspire but also instruct. By giving us characters to identify with, stories provide concrete mirrors for self-discovery and self-examination. At their best, they shed light on the complexities of our situation and educate the sentiments in a richer and more sophisticated way.

The Meaning of America aims to demonstrate concretely how short stories can shed light on the meaning of American identity, character, and citizenship, and to do so by displaying and promoting learning not through lecturing but through genuine inquiry and searching conversation.

Our first session begins with a discussion of American national identity and why it matters. Sessions 2 through 5 are devoted to the American character: we explore what kind of citizens are likely to emerge in a nation founded on individual rights, equality, enterprise and commerce, and freedom of religion. Sessions 6 through 9 focus on virtues requisite for a more robust citizenry: self-command, law-abidingness, courage, and compassion. Our final session returns to the subject of American identity and its preeminent symbol, the flag, this time with a view to making one out of many.

Materials for each session include online texts of the stories and detailed teacher's guides, each of which gives information about the author, a plot summary, and a series of thematically arranged questions for thinking about the story and for thinking with the story about larger American themes. These guides go beyond lesson plans intended to help students get the facts straight. Instead, they want to help readers probe the meaning of the story for enduring insights about important American and human matters.

An additional bonus is the connection this curriculum has with the new Common Core standards.

In addition to the teacher's guides, the curriculum for each session includes a video discussion of the story, conducted by a guest host with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and construct meaning from a classic American text. Shorter clips from the videos are interspersed throughout the study guides, to enable teachers (and students) to see how the questions may be discussed in the spirit of genuine inquiry.

The Meaning of America is designed to allow teachers to integrate lessons into their current classroom curriculum in any way they see fit. The lessons can be used across disciplines—not only for civics classrooms, but also for social studies, language arts, humanities, and other subject areas as well.

An additional bonus is the connection this curriculum has with the new Common Core standards. These standards not only mandate certain critical types of content, such as seminal works in American literature, for all students; they also advocate “close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding.” Literature and social studies teachers looking for models for teaching close reading and analyzing complex texts should find most welcome the headnotes, video segments, and, above all, the guiding questions that accompany each of the ten stories in our curriculum and the associated skills of critical thinking that they encourage and promote.

In brief, The Meaning of America reflects our own long experience in teaching and the principles derived from that practice: be serious; speak up, not down to students; ask them genuine questions; and encourage them in thoughtful reflection and honest conversation. Students treated in this fashion, more often than not, will rise to the occasion and vindicate your trust in their capacity to learn and grow—in mind, in heart, and in soul.