Closer Readings Commentary

Start the year strong: how the humanities can help you move from “the fierce urgency of now” to Gilgamesh

It’s planning time for your opening days/weeks in the classroom. Experienced teachers know that Aristotle was right when he coined the slogan “well begun is half done.” President Obama also just recently reminded us how important it is to be a “good storyteller.” So let EDSITEment help you with your U.S. history, world history, and literature curriculums on both fronts in our new Back to School feature.

The Promissory note: a link between U.S. history "then" and "now"

In his “I have a dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. Martin Luther King stated that in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the founders and Lincoln were “signing a promissory note” that eventually would result in all men being "guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Appealing to the American moral consciousness, he looked back from the “fierce urgency of now” (his daily reality of racial inequality and segregation) to Lincoln at Gettysburg and to the founding to show us a way to link past and present: the idealism of the founding of our nation with the issues of the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century and today. It’s a story that needs retelling in every generation.

Telling a Story

Students will be surprised to learn that the nation’s first civil rights struggle started early in the 19th century and was led by a group of people called the abolitionists who succeeded against all the odds. Yet slavery didn’t end with the Civil War and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished what the antebellum South called "our peculiar institution." It continued under other names such as “peonage”: a convict-based type of bondage practiced for 80 years until FDR ended the system during WWII. The future demolition of America's segregation was built on this foundation. It took the unlikely shape of a group of idealistic college students of the post-war generation and a newly married mixed-race couple from rural Virginia. In 1961, the young black and white Freedom Riders challenged segregated interstate public transit by riding into the Deep South, and to the naysayers surprise, they won. Closely following this victory, the aptly-named Lovings' modest hope for “domestic tranquility” destroyed the root of racial separatism when, in 1967, their successful Supreme Court case changed the marriage laws of the nation.

In order to tell these incredible stories of how Americans have understood and struggled with ideas of freedom, equality, and citizenship throughout our history, NEH will launch a new initiative Created Equal in early September. You will be able to access streaming versions of four films —The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name, Freedom Riders, and The Loving Story, which detail the outline, above. In the classroom section you will find selected film clips, common questions for active student viewing, background essays for teachers, lesson plans, primary sources, and more, drawn from the resources of both EDSITEment and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for the Study of American History.

Where were you when …?

In the meantime, why not leverage student interest in the civil rights upcoming anniversary by introducing the technique of oral interviews and constructing timelines. Students will surely be able to find family members, relatives or even neighbors who attended the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom or watched it on TV. Our lesson What is History? shows how to interview witnesses to history.

World history and literature

Of course, EDSITEment also has exciting stories to tell in world history, literature, art, folklore, mythology, and much more. Reach back over 30,000 years with Cave Art: Discovering Prehistoric Humans through Pictures and explore the art, science, and culture of antiquity in Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. These resources are now also supplemented with background essays drawn from Humanities, the official magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

What you can expect to find in Humanities magazine are informational texts and models of good writing based on state-of-the art scholarship. For example, Philip Freeman, in his article about teaching the great epic Gilgamesh, retells the ancient story and recounts life lessons he and his college students have drawn from this classic over the years. “I … find great comfort in the fact that people four thousand years ago struggled with the same fundamental issues as we do today.”

Great humanities works of the past, do (to adapt Dr. King’s phrase) illuminate and clarify “the fierce urgency of now.” Over the next year, EDSITEment will be highlighting at least one essay per month from this online repository of rich essays on important classroom texts, with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and institutions such as the U.S. Supreme Court.