Closer Readings Commentary

Interview with Amy and Leon Kass

  1. What is the American Calendar project? Why this project? Why should teachers teach about American civic holidays?

The American Calendar project is a series of nine e-anthologies—one for each national holiday—whose stories, speeches, songs, poems, letters, and essays help us think about the meaning of each holiday. (They are all available free of charge at

The rationale is simple: national holidays offer wonderful opportunities to learn about and to become more knowingly attached to the American Republic. For the national calendar, as a whole and in each part, provides an excellent introduction to the diverse strands of our national identity and the meaning of our common life and purpose.

  1. Tell us about your Independence Day e-book. What will teachers find in it? Why did you choose the readings you did?

The e-book contains over 50 selections, from colonial times to the present, chosen and arranged to illuminate a series of themes: declaring, securing, and maintaining independence; the promise of the new republic; seeking a more perfect union (with special attention to securing equal rights for blacks and women); and celebrating the holiday and remembering its national promise.

  1. Are there any selections from the e-book that you would particularly recommend for teachers?

In addition to the Declaration of Independence, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Calvin Coolidge’s Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A Village Patriot.”

  1. What did you learn about the Declaration of Independence and America from this project? Is the Declaration still important to American life?

In teaching the Declaration of Independence in our classes at the University of Chicago, we focused almost exclusively on the so-called self-evident truths of human equality, inalienable natural rights, consent of the governed as the basis of legitimate government, and the right of revolution—the philosophical principles that form the core of what we call the American creed.

Working on this anthology, we were impressed by three things we had formerly insufficiently appreciated. First, how politically difficult it had been to proclaim independence, and how much depended on the persuasive power of men like John Adams and Patrick Henry. Second, it was the Declaration’s list of grievances more than its philosophical principles that mobilized support for independence and the war that secured it. Third, although the principles stated in the Declaration made the United States the first nation founded on the basis of universal philosophical ideas, both the principles and the declared independence would have come to naught had it not been for the hugely improbable success of the Colonists in the long War of Independence, and the indispensable leadership of General Washington.

That said, we still believe that the unique yet universal principles of the Declaration remain at the political heart of our Republic, and deserve to be studied, understood, and perpetuated.

  1. Why should social studies teachers use imaginative literature, like short stories, in their classrooms? What can fiction add to civic and history education?

As has been known at least since Homer and Plato, it is the poets, not the philosophers and historians, who shape the loves and hates of souls and cities. Today as well, works of fiction speak most immediately, engagingly, and movingly to the hearts and minds of readers of all ages. By furnishing our imaginations with well-drawn characters confronting concrete difficulties in well-defined circumstances, well-crafted stories can shed light on our national character and civic practices. By enabling us to identify and sympathize with the characters and the historical situations in which they find themselves, stories invites us to reflect not only about ourselves and our own personal and civic experiences, but also to see and think beyond ourselves.

A short story is thus a perfect vehicle for generating fruitful self-examination and self-knowledge, as well as deepening our civic identity and attachment.

  1. How did you both get interested in e-learning? What inspired you to create What So Proudly We Hail?

We spent our lives teaching college students in small seminar classes, interpreting primary sources by means of directed discussion, conducted in the spirit of genuine inquiry. When we published our anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, we had just retired, and we were looking for ways to increase the reach of our materials into college and high-school civics, history, and American literature classes, and also to promote our inquiry-based approach to education.

We began by producing videotaped conversations about 10 of the stories in our book, which, along with the discussion guides we produced for the stories, became our e-curriculum on “The Meaning of America,” selections from which have been featured this past year on EDSITEment.

  1. Does your project address the new college and career readiness standards (Common Core) recently adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia?

Although we did not produce our anthologies and our curricula for this explicit purpose, we are now hard at work in showing how our materials and our way of teaching them can help teachers meet these standards. The discussion guides for the selections in “The Meaning of America” are already introduced with reference to specific Common Core standards.

In addition, we are now preparing concrete lesson plans for these materials that will extend these connections and make them in greater detail. Beyond these efforts, we think our materials offer teachers an ideal way to meet the Common Core while also promoting civic education and higher literacy: the standards emphasize primary sources—and almost all of our materials are primary sources—but they primarily focus on teaching skills of reading and analysis. Learning those skills with these rich materials has the added benefit that comes from the content of our materials, and their capacity for engaging the hearts and minds of young people.