Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

This week I had the opportunity to do a two-part guest lesson with a group of seniors in their government class. Our essential question was “Why is America so polarized?” We looked at four different sources to answer this question: a Pew Research Study, a conservative’s OpEd, a liberal’s OpEd, and a podcast interview. I’ll be honest, the students did not love digging deeply into those four sources. It was mentally rigorous and at times, exhausting. But I knew that they needed that information for day 2’s agenda: a socratic seminar.

When the time came for the seminar, students were ready to speak. They shared their own personal vision for America, they supported what they believed to be the biggest contributing factor to political polarization with evidence from our readings, and they debated the best way to move forward to diminish the crippling polarization we see daily. The vast majority of students, even the shyest, participated in the discussion, bouncing ideas off of each other and challenging others’ conceptions with the evidence they drew from the articles. It was really a joy to just sit back in a student’s chair during this time and listen to these seniors, who will be voting in the next election, debate real ideas with real consequences. Socratic Seminars provide a great platform to do this.

In Socratic Seminars, students usually sit in a circle and discuss deeper questions that then lead to a bigger, essential question, which encapsulates the whole learning event. Teachers often stay back, letting students start the conversation (perhaps with some questions on the board), engage with one another, cite evidence from previously-read sources, and draw conclusions together. Socratic Seminars put the onus of learning on the students and allows them to explore different answers to complex questions in the safety of their classroom.

When I lead professional developments for schools who use the Thinking Nation curriculum, I often encourage teachers to incorporate socratic seminars into their use of our materials. While Socratic Seminars may seem intimidating at first, they are excellent ways to have students engage with complex ideas and empower them to think critically about the content they are studying. To successfully engage in a Socratic Seminar, students need to have read or looked at relevant sources to the topic at hand. They must have a broad essential question to frame their thinking about those materials and they need smaller open-ended questions that can guide their thinking throughout the discussion process. We’ve designed our curricular materials, especially our DBQs, to include all of these things so that teachers can effectively attach a Socratic Seminar to that learning process.

At Thinking Nation, we believe in empowers students to think historically. We aren’t satisfied with them being mere passive receivers of a historical narrative; rather, we want them to actively engage with the past. We want students to wrestle with historical sources and draw evidence-based conclusions as they navigate the sea of the past. Implementing Socratic Seminars gives students such opportunities in their learning process. 

Historical Thinking Combats Polarization

Why are we so polarized right now? If “the other side” says it, we automatically discount it. We don’t know how to debate, or even argue well. We just yell. We devour information that feeds our own perspective and spit out any information that we disagree with as “fake news.” We are hurting ourselves, hurting our local communities, and hurting our national democracy. 

In his 1796 Farewell Address, our first President George Washington warned his country that the “spirit of party” “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” he continues, in words that will jolt the eyes of any modern reader. This spirit of party is “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” 

We have been consumed.

But we don’t have to remain this way. We can still put the fire out. But, like any fire, this is going to take time, a lot of resources, and the skill to do so properly. Within this solution is the core of our curriculum: historical thinking.

When we think historically, we are skilled to navigate evidence appropriately, engage with multiple perspectives, recognize causation, recognize trends, and have the knowledge of historical precedents needed to make informed decisions about our present. Historical thinking is critical thinking. It’s slow thinking, counterintuitive to the click bait culture our social media accounts reward. It’s persistent thinking, willing to engage with a topic enough to actually understand it. It’s empathetic thinking, willing to compassionately understand those we study rather than jump to ill-informed conclusions.
Historical thinking is the type of thinking we need the upcoming generations of citizens to embody if we don’t want to continue to be consumed by the fire of factions and polarization. Let’s slow things down, revolutionize the history classroom, and cultivate a Thinking Nation.

Independence Day, 245 Years Later

According to John Adams, we should all be firing up our grills and lighting off our fireworks today. 245 years ago, he wrote a compelling statement to his wife, Abigail Adams. Taking pen to paper on July 3, 1776, Adams reflected on the previous day’s accomplishment of the Continental Congress approving the Declaration of Independence: 

At the bottom of this scan of Adam’s letter, you can see he begins to explain his thoughts on July 2. Scan from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776

While we may laugh at Adams’ certainty that the 2nd of July would be a day of celebration, his words were still prophetic. Every year, on July 4th (the day the Declaration’s final version was adopted) many Americans celebrate Independence Day. It’s a day to remember the eventual success of the American Revolution and the birth of the United States. 

But, as we saw in the blog two weeks ago, not everyone took such pride in America’s independence day. Speaking on behalf of enslaved Americans in 1852, Frederick Douglass pointed out America’s hypocrisy in celebrating its own independence while it continued to strengthen human chattel slavery within its borders. Speaking to hundreds in Rochester, NY but knowing full well that his speech would be sold in pamphlet form across the country, he declared:

Frederick Douglass, 1852.

The freedom gained is yours; and you, therefore, may properly celebrate this anniversary. The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny… This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.

“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852.

Douglass made sure his audience recognized America’s double standard. He was able to praise what America’s founders did do while also condemning what they didn’t do. By doing this, he paved a path forward for us. Over a hundred years later, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. continued in this vein in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech: 

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

“I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr. August 28, 1963.
Martin Luther King at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

With these words, he revealed both the great feat of America’s independence and the principles it set forth as well as America’s inability to live up to those principles. Like Douglass, he held these two facts in tension. 

Us modern readers must also be willing to hold these facts in tension. First, we cannot be arrogant enough to assume that the “bad check” is fully resolved in 2021. As any parent of a toddler will admit, making a mess takes far less time than cleaning it up. American slavery lasted 339 years. After that, Jim Crow segregation lasted 89 years until Brown v. Board (1954). It would be another decade before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Therefore, in 2021 we are only 57 years from the Civil Rights Act that MLK and others worked so hard to pass. To say that the work toward liberty and justice for all is finished is nothing other than willful ignorance. 

Still, we’ve come a long way in realizing America’s promise as laid out in the Declaration. Based on this, as well as the words of the Declaration itself, we still have cause to celebrate! The Declaration affirms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These words are worth celebrating, not because we’ve fully lived up to them, but in order to remind us to continue to do the work in order to “form a more perfect union.”

As we celebrate our nation’s birthday this weekend, may we too hold these truths in tension. On one hand, we live in a country that is built on a glorious principle, that all are created equal. On the other hand, our history is a history of our country that has yet to fully live up to this principle. That, of course, does not make the principle any less worth celebrating. As Douglass declared in his speech, “Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” 

May Independence Day be both a day to celebrate the 245th birthday of the United States and a call to action to live out the Declaration’s principles “on all occasions,” and “whatever the cost.”

The Filibuster

The filibuster has been in the news a lot lately. With the increasing polarization in Congress, Democrats in the Senate have been advocating abolishing the filibuster since the end of 2020. With holdouts like Dem. Sen. Joe Manchin III who has said that he will not vote to end it, Democrats are unable to move forward with abolishing the filibuster, which would make it easier to get much of their progressive legislation passed. 

But what is the filibuster? Simply put, it is a mechanism in the Senate that gives the minority party more control over a piece of legislation. Historically, to filibuster meant to actively speak on the Senate floor in order to delay the legislative process and prevent a vote from taking place. Now, senators do not need to stand on the floor. A senator can simply invoke the filibuster, and unless there are 60 votes to overrule the filibuster (this is called cloture), the bill is essentially stopped in its tracks. Democrats today argue that since Republicans are constantly filibustering their legislation, Congress has essentially become a minority rule legislature. Even though Democrats control the White House, House of Representatives, and (narrowly) the Senate, they cannot pass progressive legislation because of this. Of course, a democracy is by definition “majority rule,” so many argue that by keeping the filibuster in place, it is preventing democracy from happening. This begs the question: why did the filibuster begin in the first place?

Really, filibusters have existed since the beginning of our Constitution. In September 1789, Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay wrote that the “design of the Virginians… was to talk away the time, so that we could not get the bill passed.” Long, seemingly pointless speeches have been eating up legislation from the beginning. But it was not until 1917 that cloture was established. From then, if 2/3 of the Senate voted to, the debate (the filibuster) would end. Then a vote could take place. In 1975, that vote changed to only 60/100 Senators instead of 67. The trajectory of U.S. history, then, is to curb the stalling nature of filibuster in order to keep Congress doing its job: to legislate. 

Today, as debate continues over what to do with the filibuster, this history should help. When the filibuster becomes more than just a tool of the minority party to force compromise, but rather becomes a tool to prevent “the other side” from winning, perhaps reform is needed. 

Does this mean the filibuster should be abolished? Well, Democrats may not like the long term consequences of its abolition once they no longer control Congress. Then, Republicans, or some future party, could pass sweeping legislation in the same way they hope to now. Still, as our history reminds us, reform is often good and necessary. It’s why we have amendments, it’s why we have term limits for presidents, and it’s why we have a Supreme Court to interpret laws and how they may change over time. Now, it’s just Congress’s job to figure out what reform goes beyond just helping the particular political cause of the moment and actually strengthens the Constitutional system that has existed for more than two centuries.

Juneteenth: America’s Holiday

For the first time in almost 40 years, Congress established a new national holiday: Juneteenth. In such a politically polarized world, the quick bi-partisan support for this holiday should not go unnoticed. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday, June 15. It passed the House the next day, 415-14, and then yesterday June 17, it was signed into law by President Joe Biden. Something that passed so quickly and with such bipartisan support must be understood. After all, it is now our 11th federal holiday.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX that the 250,000 enslaved men, women, and children in the state were free. While they were technically free as early as January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, because Texas never fell to U.S. troops during the Civil War, it took two and half more years for the news to reach them. Beginning that day, Black Texans would celebrate its anniversary every year after. 

A Band in Austin, TX celebrates Juneteenth in 1900.

For over 150 years, Black Americans have celebrated this joyous holiday. For many years, to come, all Americans will celebrate it. Juneteenth is for all of us. Historian Eric Foner has called Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War, America’s second founding. The first 100 years of our nation’s history was defined by a great paradox: Celebrating liberty while spreading slavery. In order to begin the ongoing process (which we still must pursue, after all, even the founder’s acknowledged the task of forming “a more perfect union”) of living to our creeds, the nation had to abolish slavery. Juneteenth is a clear way to celebrate this second founding in the same way that we celebrate our first founding every July 4th.

Last month, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Annette Gordon-Reed published her part national history part memoir On Juneteenth.

There is also something incredibly significant about adopting a holiday to celebrate this second founding, not on some anniversary of a legislative act, but on a day that Black Americans have celebrated for a century and a half. By honoring a day that has such a rich cultural heritage, the government reminds us that federal holidays are for the people. Black Americans have set the tone for celebrations of this day over generations, it is now fitting for the rest of America to join the celebratory chorus.

On July 5th, 1852, Frederick Douglass reminded his Rochester, NY audience of America’s double standard in celebrating Independence Day every July 4th. 

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Frederick Douglass, 1852

Douglass rightfully condemned the hypocrisy of celebrating July 4th in a nation that enslaved millions. Now, we get to celebrate Juneteenth as the day our new republic began. Not perfect, but more perfect. Tomorrow is a big day. It deserves any respect we hold for the 4th of July. So let’s celebrate!

Resistance and Persistence for Equality: Honoring the AAPI Community

The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As the month comes to a close, we want to take this week’s blog to honor those who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality within the AAPI community. This week’s blog will highlight three instances where Asian Americans called the United States to live up to its founding ideas of liberty and justice for all. Each of these stories come from our curriculum’s library of DBQs and we hope that as you engage with their heroism today, students will engage with their stories in the classroom.

Our first story of resistance and persistence comes from San Francisco in 1886. Chinese men Yick Wo and Wo Lee were denied permits to operate their laundry businesses under a new discriminatory law in San Francisco. While the law did not mention race at all, after the city council passed it, only white laundry business owners could obtain permits to legally operate in the city. Yick Wo and Wong Lee challenged this discrimination on the basis of the relatively new (passed in 1868) 14th Amendment, which states, “No State shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” To put the amendment to the test, they continued to operate their businesses without permits, and then when threatened by the city, made their case in the U.S. legal system. Despite the new city law not explicitly referencing Chinese San Franciscans, Wo and Lee took their case (Yick Wo v. Hopkins) all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the city’s laws violated their 14th amendment rights. The court unanimously sided with Wo and Lee and set a profound precedent in U.S. legal history. The court argued that just because a law is not racist on its face doesn’t mean it can’t violate a citizen’s 14th Amendment rights. Their resistance and persistence led to an important change in our justice system.

Our second story comes during the American tragedy of Japanese internment. During World War II, the American government forced Japanese Americans out of their homes, rounded them up, and forced them to live for almost three years in concentration camps in remote areas mostly in the Western United States. Resisting this unjust internment, Fred Korematsu hid in Oakland. He was later arrested and jailed for refusing to be taken from his home to one of these camps. The ACLU used his arrest as an opportunity to test the legality of Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to intern Japanese Americans, arguing that it was in the interest of national security. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court did not uphold the 14th Amendment rights like it did in 1886 and ruled 6-3 in favor of Korematsu’s conviction. Still, Korematsu paved the way for America’s apology for this atrocious act against Japanese Americans. In 1982 a federal commission found that the Executive Order was shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, the government paid $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. Korematsu’s resistance set the foundation for justice. 

Our third story takes place in 1965. Thousands of Filipino farmworkers in California were working underpaid and in inhumane conditions in California farms. Filipino-native Larry Itliong, who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led a successful strike in Coachella to raise the wages and working conditions of Filipino farmworkers. From there, the workers followed the grape crops to Delano, CA. When refused the same wages they were granted in Coachella, they planned another strike. But to avoid Mexican workers taking the jobs once the Filipinos went on strike, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez, the leader of the association that primarily served Mexican farmworkers. Initially hesitant, Chavez agreed to help Itliong and join the strike. This became the great Delano Grape Strike that lasted 5 years and became an international movement to advocate farmworker rights. If it were not for the resistance and persistence of Larry Itliong, the movement would have never come about.

As May ends, may we remember the contributions of the above three men and so many more within the AAPI community who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality on behalf of Asian Americans throughout the United States.

The Paradox of Liberty: Slavery and the U.S. Constitution

The creators of the United States Constitution set out on a difficult task. In creating a document to unify thirteen new states, while at the same time upholding those states’ sovereignty, the founders could not escape an inherent tension. Specifically, the issue of slavery coupled with the ideal of equality could hardly be reconciled. 

In its preamble, the Constitution illuminates several actions of the “People of the United States” as a foundation to “form a more perfect Union.” Some of these actions are to “establish Justice, “insure domestic Tranquility,” “promote the general Welfare,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This foundation upon which the rest of the document lays upon forces several questions: What is justice and for whom? Who is able to experience tranquility? Who falls under ‘general welfare’? Who’s liberty is secured? 

Eventually, the nation’s stain of slavery would drip across this entire foundation and cause the Civil War.

Slavery is addressed three times in the 1787 Constitution. In Article I, Section 2, enslaved people are counted as “three fifths” of a person in regards to representation. This compromise kept southern states from garnering too much political power as they could have had if their vast slave population fully counted toward the amount of delegates they were allotted for the House of Representatives. In section 9 of the same article, the legal importation of slaves was given an end date, 1808.

 

Lastly, in Article IV, section 2, the Constitution stated that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof, escaping to another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour.” Known as the fugitive slave clause, this vague principle protected slaveholders’ right to pursue and retrieve an escaped slave, even if the fugitive made it to a state where slavery was abolished. It is in this last article that the preamble is put to the test. What was justice to a free-state may not be justice to the slave-state; likewise, “domestic Tranquility” could turn into domestic distrust if citizens within differing states chose not to cooperate. These inconsistencies between preamble goals and actual governance weakened America’s foundation.

Despite this visible crack in the new nation’s foundation, it appears that the framers of the Constitution saw no other way forward. They believed that abolishing slavery in the whole nation was out of the question if each of the states was expected to sign the Constitution. Not only did the southern states explicitly build their economy off of the backs of slaves, but as Thomas Jefferson noted, “for tho’ their [the northern] people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” The colonies had built an economy with slavery at its core, and if they wanted to create a new constitution in 1787, calling for slavery’s abolition was inconceivable to them. 

Herein lies the deep paradox of our Constitution. Yes, as we at Thinking Nation believe, the principles of the U.S. Constitution are strong and enduring. We would do well as a country to adhere to them. Still, the Constitution is not sacred. It had significant flaws that deprived millions of Americans their personhood and allowed slavery to not simply continue, but to expand in the 70 years after it was signed. If we want to praise the principles of government outlined in our Constitution, we must, as many before us, condemn the errors that prioritized white compromises at the expense of black bodies.

“Accurate” History and the 1776 Commission Report

First, let’s recognize the mundane, yet momentous occasion that happened this week: The Inauguration. Of course, I use mundane lightly, as the ceremony was emotion-filled for so many people. If you missed Amanda Gorman’s poem,  I encourage you to listen to her heartfelt summary of America and American opportunity. Back in October, our blog addressed how the Constitution ensures the peaceful transfer of power. Of course, with the invasion of our Capitol earlier this month, it was not as peaceful as it should have been, but still, Wednesday’s inauguration was ceremonial and a new president took the oath of office (Read it here! (End of Section I) It’s straight from Article II of the Constitution). Power was transferred and our republic moves forward. 

For this (long) blog, though, I want to address a document that was released on Monday by the Trump administration: “The 1776 Report” by The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Yes, it is true, as early as Thursday morning, the Biden administration has already removed the report from whitegouse.gov. This means that one of President Biden’s first acts was to revoke the commission. It’s gone. But it’s not.

The sentiments laid out in the 1776 report do not simply die with the presidency that commissioned it, and so, I think it is important for us to understand what it was asking of educators across the country.

First, as one might expect with an American history report coming from the Trump administration, it received a lot of pushback, especially from academic historians. One reason is that there were no academic historians on the commission itself. One historian from Princeton, Kevin Kruse, demonstrated the skewed picture the report, released on MLK Day, painted of Martin Luther King, Jr. James Grossman, president of the American Historical Association (AHA), commented that the report was “a hack job. It’s not a work of history,”  and “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.” In fact, the AHA published a statement condemning the report that was then signed by 33 other professional historical associations.

The 1776 report was the Trump Administration’s attempt to counter last year’s “1619 Project,” published by the New York Times, which sought to center America’s hand in slavery into American history. The 1619 Project mostly received praise, with a few exceptions from certain prominent scholars. Analysis of the Project deserves a series of blog posts, so any thoughts on it will be spared from this post.

Today’s blog serves as Thinking Nation’s comment on the 1776 Commission’s Report. The U.S. Constitution, and its principles, are at the heart of our curriculum, and since the 1776 Commission claims the same, it is important to acknowledge both alignment to and departure from our goals for the history classroom.

First, in the introduction, the report states that its purpose is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” Honestly, beyond the thinly veiled jab at the 1619 Project with the reference to 1776, this purpose seems hard to refute. At Thinking Nation, we want to cultivate thinking citizens and embed Constitutional principles into our historical thinking curriculum. Its intended purpose states the same. Furthermore, the report notes that “To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.” Partisan squabbles aside, I know of few history teachers would disagree with this statement. Many of us echoed this same sentiment loudly in the aftermath of January 6th’s insurrection. “Our country needs civics,” we cried. “Fund history education!” So far, 1776 Report, so good.

However, the report continuously contends that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” Here, they argue that their report does not have partisan aims, but seeks that “Educators should teach an accurate history of how the permanent principles of America’s founding have been challenged and preserved since 1776.” But who determines what is accurate or which principles are permanent? Surely, a 45 page report cannot summarize an accurate American History? And it doesn’t.

While the 1776 Report claims not to be partisan and to present an accurate view of the past, it cannot honestly reflect on its presentation and come to the conclusion that it lived up to its aims. The report lumps early 20th century “Progressivism” with Slavery, Communism, and Fascism as a “Challenge to America’s Principles.” Of course, since Progressivism is a vital part of American history that has undoubtedly led to needed reform, it is clear that there is a conservative bent to this report. If progressivism is a challenge, then conservatism is the remedy, logic would have it. Partisanship is therefore central to the 1776 report, despite it claiming that “States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions…” Then it might need to reject large swaths of its own report.

There are a slew of historical inaccuracies and evidence-less claims in the report, in fact so many that I spent just as much time annotating the report as I did reading it. But for this blog, let’s continue to focus on big ideas. The last aspect of the report that deserves attention is its answering of these two fundamental questions: What is history? (Our first blog post) and What is the purpose of history education?

Revisiting a quote cited above, the report claims that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” This of course implies a certain definition of history: Past facts = history. But as we demonstrated in our first blog, history is not merely the past: it is the interpretation of the past. Any historian would acknowledge that interpretations can differ, and that is ok. So when a report that bases its entire foundation on history claims that facts are simply “a matter of history,” they narrow our view of a profound and complex discipline. Shortchanging the meaning of history is great for propagandizing a partisan agenda but not so great for illuminating a complex past. 

As to history’s purpose, the report states that “educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country.” But history education, even civics education, should not be reduced this way. Understanding is the chief goal of any education, but here, the report claims that “a profound love of their country,” is the measure of success. Now, there should be no problem if someone arrives at that love of country through historical and civic study. A case can even be made that it is healthy. But it is not the purpose. History education is not a Sunday sermon, cultivating a particular belief system and fostering devotion to that system. It may have some of the same byproducts as said sermon, but one should not equate the two. Perhaps the simplest rebuttal to the prescribed purpose of education in the 1776 Report is this simple reminder: Our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. While the report pays lip service to this phrase throughout the 45 pages, it blatantly defies this purpose with its own goals.

The 1776 report claims to offer an “accurate” presentation of history. It fails. While it has certain characteristics that are worth commending, as a whole, it falls far short of its own aspirations. By doubling-down on partisan rhetoric and old views of history that prioritize America’s “greatness” over America’s complexity, it has no place in a history classroom where we want students to think historically, interrogate the historical record, and be equipped to draw evidence-based conclusions. Even though the report itself has been revoked, it’s skewed view of American history will continue to be applauded in many political and educational circles in the coming years. These views are not new. Thus, it is important to engage with them. 

We believe that in order for democracy to thrive, we must cultivate thinking citizens. But the 1776 Report, or the skewed view of history it presents, is not the way to do this.

What About the Freedom of Speech?

A few weeks ago, our blog focused on providing a refresher on the Bill of Rights, that is, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is where we get the “Freedom of Speech.” This freedom has been invoked frequently in the days since the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, so we thought it would be prudent to review this amendment and its protections in more detail.

First, let’s read the 1st Amendment in its entirety: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There is a lot packed into this sentence, so let’s abbreviate to focus on our topic for today: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” 

Let’s look a little closer. Who is the subject? Congress. And what can’t Congress do? Make a law that abridges freedom of speech. This is key, The Constitutional protections of freedom of speech involve potential infringements of speech by the federal government

Here, it is important to note that private companies are not bound by the U.S. Constitution to uphold the freedom of speech. The First Amendment only protects against government suppression of speech and government censorship. 

In the past week, many have protested major social media companies for banning President Trump’s accounts. Often, the people protesting this action decry it as denying the freedom of speech. However, as shown above, this freedom is meant to be a protection against the government, not private companies. Private companies are well within their rights to dictate the terms of using their platforms (i.e. their “terms and conditions”), and if those terms are violated, they can freeze or ban an account. There are many laws that influence private business practices, however, the Bill of Rights is not one of them.

At Thinking Nation, we think it is incredibly important to make this distinction. We hold the Constitution highly and believe it to be the bedrock of our democracy. With that said, we also believe that misrepresentation of our nation’s founding document can harm that very democracy. When we misuse the Constitution, especially when seeking our own benefit, we put a cloud over the intentions of our nation’s founders and weaken our own country’s foundation.

In this contentious time in American history, let’s cling to the principles outlined by our Constitution. May we not detract from their potency on one hand, and may we not make them to be more than they were meant to be on the other. 

The Constitution is Everywhere

2020 was quite a year. The U.S. Constitution was invoked throughout it. In an impeachment trial, rules relating to pandemic response, how to bring about true racial equality, appointing Supreme Court Justices, what to do when a sitting president refuses to concede a lost election, how to navigate an “omnibus bill” passed by Congress, and surely the list goes on. Each of these events both relate to and involve average citizens and thus, our ability to navigate our nation’s founding document directly relates to our ability to properly navigate our current circumstances. It is with this in mind that Thinking Nation integrates Constitutional literacy into all of our DBQs. This way, students can not only think critically about the past, but can be more informed and engaged citizens in our democracy.

Knowing the Constitution and internalizing its principles affects us far more than we realize. When we feel like Congress is at a stand still, where can we go to better understand the origins of this gridlock? The Constitution. When the President takes legislative matters into his own hands, how can we challenge it? Cite the Constitution. When voting rights are infringed upon, what is cited to defend the votes of all Americans? The Constitution. When we feel like free speech or the freedom of the press is being suppressed, where do we turn? The Constitution. We probably even quote or paraphrase the Constitution (unfortunately sometimes out of context) more than we even realize it. It is not only the nation’s founding document, it is a document that guides the political and public lives of that nation’s citizens.

In short, the Constitution is the foundation of American democracy and American citizenship. Therefore, we believe that part of making students engaged and informed citizens is familiarizing them with the Constitution. However, since our historical thinking curriculum stems far beyond the history of the United States, connecting it to the Constitution happens in two distinct ways. 

First, for United States History DBQs, we want to demonstrate that the Constitution is tied to all facets of U.S.https://www.thinkingnation.org/curriculum/#sample-DBQs History. As soon as an event enters the public realm, the Constitution can be invoked, even if it “does not expressly say” as President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged in his famous First Inaugural Address.

Second, for World History DBQs, we want to demonstrate that the Constitution was not created in a vacuum. It is attached to a much longer history than itself, inspired by the past in what it should and should not be as a governing document. 

In sum, the Constitution is connected to each of the DBQ tasks within this curriculum: as a product of the past, a contextualizing document for U.S. History, and a guide for how to ensure the success of the American experiment. In this way, we hope to simultaneously equip students with a Constitutional literacy as we equip students to think historically. In the end, we hope to cultivate thinking citizens who can reflect on the past, navigate the present, and better our future.

The Bill of Rights: A Refresher

When Thinking Nation was still just an idea, a lot of our curriculum conversations centered on the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our country and it is a living document that has guided government and citizens for over two centuries. Understanding it can help strengthen our democracy and instill a trust in its aims, even when we fail to meet those aims. Interpretable and amendable, critical analysis of the nation’s founding document can never stop. If we want to form a more perfect union, we must understand the document that serves as the foundation for that endeavor. One specific area that we should continuously refresh our knowledge of is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791.

To contextualize the Bill of Rights, it is important to reread the purpose of the Constitution. The United States Constitution begins with this preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” With this sentence, the founders outlined their vision for America. The remainder of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is an outline for how that vision should materialize.

The Bill of Rights was the founders’ written promise to posterity that the American government would protect the rights of its citizens. The 1st Amendment protects freedoms like religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government. The 2nd Amendment protects the right to bear arms. The 3rd Amendment ensures that U.S. soldiers cannot take advantage of civilians’ homes. The 4th Amendment guards against unlawful searches and seizures. The 5th Amendment protects against self-incrimination and secures due process. The 6th Amendment ensures transparency through a speedy and public trial and provides defendants the right to have a lawyer. The 7th Amendment secures the right to a jury. The 8th Amendment shelters citizens from cruel and unusual punishments and excessive fines. The 9th Amendment even states that there are many other rights, not listed, that the government cannot take away. Lastly, to protect against an overpowering federal government, the 10th Amendment asserts that rights not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people.

In the Declaration of Independence, it states, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” That is the role of the government, to secure our rights. The Bill of Rights is an important reminder of this role and our duty to ensure that the government lives out its purpose.

Why did the Founders Create the Electoral College?

As I write this on Thursday, November 5, the presidential election is still uncalled. Even if states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia submit final tallies today, there is bound to be weeks of lawsuits, recounts, and general distrust of these results from whichever side loses the presidential campaign. With votes so close in several swing states, and the winner of those states’ popular vote gaining all of its electoral votes, even a handful of votes could make a huge (4 years!!) difference in who runs the executive branch of our country.

With this in mind, so many people have wondered how the electoral college works, why it was implemented, and whether or not the Constitution should be amended to abolish the institution. Today, I want to explore why the founders set up the Electoral College. 

How to elect the president was a hotly debated topic at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Should it be through a popular vote? Should the state legislatures choose the executive? Should Congress? Something else? In the end, the framers of the Constitution decided on a unique, if not confusing, system: the Electoral College. 

There is no question that the Electoral College limits majoritarian democracy; it is an “indirect election.” But it is important to keep in mind that in founding the new U.S. Government, the framers wanted unity. As shown by the country’s first 4 of 5 presidents being from Virginia, large states generally had more swaying power in federal politics than small states. Since the U.S. strove to be a republic, governed by federalism, the framers had to come up with a way to balance the power of small and large states. This was to “avoid the tyranny of the majority.” If the will of the majority constantly overtook the rights of minorities, a popular despotism would likely result.

For the legislative branch, they created a bicameral legislature (the House and Senate) where the lower house’s number of representatives from each state was determined by that state’s population, whereas the upper house gave each state two delegates (senators). This way, even if large states could control the house, smaller states would have more of a voice in the Senate.

The process for electing the president has similar characteristics. Each state receives electors based on how many representatives they have in Congress ( # of House reps + 2 senators). In the minds of the framers, this would ensure that the diverse needs of states and citizens would be heard. Framers also worried about an uninformed electorate choosing the President, and with electors they believed that informed, uninfluenced, educated men could make objective decisions for the needs of their state. 

Coming from a Confederation that lacked any real central authority, the founders wanted to keep state autonomy strong, while also building up the role of a federal government. Having this compromised approach to electing the President was one way to do that. Small states still had a say in who their next president was, but large states containing more people would still receive more electoral votes.

Of course, the dynamics of the American populous have changed drastically in the last 230 years. When the Constitution was written, the majority of Americans (95%) lived in rural settings, now more than 80% live in cities. There are sound arguments in opposition to and in favor of the Electoral College. There were 230 years ago. Like many other aspects of our Constitution, the Electoral College was a compromise. Still, to understand that compromise, we must contextualize this aspect of our Constitution within the time and place it was ratified. Once we have done that, then we can bring sound arguments to the public sphere as to whether the Electoral College is still the best fit for the United States.

The Constitution and the Peaceful Transfer of Power

In October 15’s blog, I brought up the Election of 1800. It was a hotly contested election that embodied some of the same intense partisan divisions of today. In fact, many historians call it “the revolution after the revolution.” I also mentioned one of the major ways it was such a critical moment in world history: it marked the first peaceful transition of power. Yes, that is right, for the first time in human history, an opposing party took control of the government peacefully. No civil war, no declaration of “fraud,” just John Adams, the Federalist, packing his bags from the White House and Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican, moving in. I want to spend today’s post understanding the importance of the principles behind this moment.

The United States Constitution addresses the election of presidents in three places. Article II is the most well known, and original to the 1789 ratification. After clear holes were found in the process in the election of 1800, the 12th Amendment laid out a clear process for electors in the Electoral College to cast a vote for the President and Vice President, to avoid deadlocks. Then, in 1933, the end of a presidential term was changed to “noon on the 20th day of January.” This means that by noon on January 20th, the elected President assumes office. 

There has been a lot of talk about the contested nature of this election. While former Vice President, Joe Biden, has asserted that if he loses the election he will concede victory and respect the results, President Donald Trump has provided less assurance. Of course, Senate Republicans, who largely support the Trump Administration have quickly assured “a peaceful transition of power.” Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnel (R-KY) tweeted, “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.” Nebraska Senator, Ben Sasse (R) was even more blunt in his comments, “The president says crazy stuff. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change.” As their own comments relate, having a peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a Constitutional Democracy, where the voice of the people governs.

One thing that the framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized was that for America to be successful, the government had to be bigger than a person, bigger than a political party. This is why George Washington stepped down from office despite popular approval in 1796. It’s why President Bill Clinton assured the people at the end of the contested 2000 presidential election that “The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, from one party to another, may confound others around the globe. But it reflects the underlying strength of our Constitution and rule of law.” Centuries apart, these presidents recognized the importance of transferring power. 

As political scientist, John Zvesper notes, a peaceful transfer of power demonstrates that even the most deep partisan divisions can be properly resolved. When one leader hands the reins to another, it reminds us that our country is not built on the winds of a particular leader or a particular party, but on the voice of the people. Our principles transcend time, place, and person. Our Constitution’s first three words, “We the People,” are enshrined in this peaceful process of transferring power, and well, that is something to be proud of.

Voting and the Constitution

At the beginning of this week, the deadline for registering to vote passed in a handful of states (For those of you in California, you still have until October 19th, although even if you miss that, you can register and cast a conditional ballot on November 3, election day). Lately, there has been a lot of talk about voting. I see dozens of ads that tell me to “Register to Vote!” every day. Voting is on everyone’s mind. While we could spend this time focusing on current voting issues and trends, I want to take us back to America’s founding to better understand how voting came to be such an integral aspect of our democracy.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was equally a revolutionary document and a product of its time. We see a glimpse of its revolutionary nature in the process of electing members of the House of Representatives. Article I, which outlines the rules for Congress, states in Section 2 that these members should be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” [emphasis mine]. To have direct elections of federal representatives was an extraordinary leap forward for global democracy and it is important to remind ourselves of how revolutionary this proposition was. “We the People” actually meant something here. Still, “the people” was a narrow group, largely excluding non-landowning white men, women, and Black Americans among other groups. This caveat reveals how just as the Constitution was revolutionary, it was shaped by its present world and perceptions.

Later on in that same Article of the Constitution, it states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” Here we see the political concept of federalism at work, that is, the separation of governing power between the national and state governments. Simply translated, this clause means that states get to decide the details of elections, including who was able to vote. Since laws at this time generally favored landowners specifically, and white men in general, most states limited voting to this group. (Interestingly, in New Jersey, many women were able to vote until 1807, when that right was revoked).

Over time, property restrictions were lifted in most states, and since the Constitution granted states the right to dictate who made up the voting populace, this meant that more people (white men) could vote. This led to “universal white male suffrage” largely dominating American electoral politics by the end of the 1820s.

It would still be about 40 more years before the federal government laid specific rules for who could vote in federal elections. Five years after the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Practically, this meant that Black men could now vote alongside white men in elections. Women were still left out of electoral politics. 

(A side note here: many people (and generations of historians) have often neglected to highlight the political lives of women before the 19th Amendment, but this does not mean that women were not politically active in the 18th and 19th centuries, it simply means that they did not vote. As with today, women were at the center of major social movements that brought real political change. So, just because women did not vote did not mean they were not political citizens, they simply exercised their political natures in more creative ways. Two great books to learn more are Mary Beth Norton’s foundational Liberty’s Daughters and Rosmarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash.

After almost a century of campaigning for suffrage, women finally were granted the right to vote by the federal government in 1920. The 19th Amendment, which solidified this right into the Constitution, stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” At least on paper, America was looking more like a full democracy, where all citizens could vote. 

Sadly, simply because a right is ingrained into the Constitution does not mean that it is freely exercised. From the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century, millions of Americans were barred from voting through roundabout means. Literacy tests and poll taxes kept thousands of black Americans and poor white Americans from voting. Many immigrants could not vote because of local laws, and crude tactics of intimidation were conducted by white supremacist groups like the KKK to keep constitutional rights from turning into political power for many Black Americans during the fateful Jim Crow era (1876-1965). Due to the persistence of Civil Rights Activists in the 1950s and 60s, some of these clearly discriminatory laws were overturned through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).

The last major amendment on voting came in 1971. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age requirement across the states to age 18. Now, if a man was old enough to be drafted into war, they were also old enough to vote. 

Today, with talks of the importance of voting coupled with talks of voter fraud and voter suppression, understanding this history is ever more important. Countless Americans have fought for the right to vote to be ingrained in our Constitution and it is a right we should not hold too loosely. The right to vote spans race, ethnicity, sex, and perhaps most timely, partisan-alignment. Wherever one falls on any of these categories, recognizing the Constitutional work that went into giving Americans the right to vote should encourage us to proudly take part in this pivotal part of the democratic process.

Happy Constitution Day!

After four months of enduring the hot Pennsylvania summer cooped up in a room without ventilation, delegates from 12 of the 13 American states agreed to a new Constitution for the new country. On September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, 39 delegates penned their names to the bottom of the nation’s founding document. A new government was agreed upon and now it was up to the states to ratify the document. After New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify in 1788, it was agreed that the new government would begin on March 4th, 1789.

While different groups celebrated September 17 throughout the 20th century, the federal government did not make Constitution Day official until 2004. On this day each year, federally funded educational institutions are required to provide educational programming on the U.S. Constitution. 

In many ways, the U.S. Constitution marks a break with the past. With this document, the United States became a nation founded on ideas more than common ancestry, common ethnicity, or even common history. Rather, the United States was built on ideological beliefs about the role of government and citizens and how to best ensure the success of a nation. It is because of this break with the past that the United States government is often called “the American Experiment.”

[Of course, there are many ways that the Constitution is a product of its own historical context, but we will have to dive into that another time ;)]

As with any experiment, things have not worked out perfectly. The founders unfortunately permitted slavery to live in the new republic, where it expanded at the detriment of millions of lives in the 19th century. Furthermore, women were not written into the Constitution until the 19th Amendment in 1920, over a century after it was signed. Still, the founders even recognized that there would be the need for change to the founding document in order to best live out the founding creeds; therefore, they instituted an amendment process, where the Constitution could be appropriately adapted to fit the nation’s needs.

Today marks the 233rd anniversary of the signing that took place in Philadelphia on that September day. As the nation continues to confront its past, it is critical to also engage with its founding document. Over two centuries, this document has guided the United States. Interpretations have changed, laws have been added or subtracted, and amendments have been made. Each of these aspects of the American Experiment seek to live out the creed provided in the Constitution’s preamble, “in order to form a more perfect union.”