How to Raise an American

Last night we met up with some family at the park where I spent every 4th of July (and most days of summer) as a kid. The weather was pretty terrible, but we still had a good time, sharing a picnic and watching the kids play together. We ended up leaving before fireworks started, as it was raining pretty heavily, so Marko and Laurel have yet to experience that part of Independence Day.

It's complicated to explain the meaning behind this holiday. You can't really talk about any of our patriotic celebrations without talking about war. To a child, it may just seem to be about picnics and fireworks.

Last night I read this essay in the Atlantic about E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy list. When I was a kid, my aunt bought me the kid's encyclopedic version of his list (it's been revised several times since). I remember paging through it well into my high school years, and comparing the items that I was familiar with from school to those I had not yet encountered. Hirsch was criticized for the heavy "dead white male" presence on the list, and the essay in the Atlantic really explores that criticism. Having spent most of my education career working with Latino and Black children, and now raising my own white children, I am sensitive to the subtle messages that underpin every textbook paragraph or discussion about historical events, and the way those messages have different effects on children from different backgrounds. But still, it resonates strongly with me that having a common body of knowledge is important for our country and for preparing the next generation of citizens.*

The thing that I always liked about Hirsch's work, and what I found most relevant to my own work as a teacher of literacy, is the idea of schema. No matter what might be on your "list" of things to teach your kids, each item is sure to provoke curiosity of a whole web of other topics. Exploring those schema can often lead to alternative accounts of historical events, exploration into stories that were once important to Americans but now forgotten. The "list" is fluid, ever-changing, just like the composition of America itself. I'm sure Pearson and Scholastic and the marketers of Common Core hate that idea, because it becomes impossible to publish it and sell it to schools.

At the end of the essay, the author challenges us to think of just 10 things - not the the 5,000 on Hirsch's list - that every American should know. I'm only going with 5, because my kids are little, and my list is sort of centered around Independence Day and words they might hear. I'll look these up on Wikipedia, do an image search, look for flags when we're out and about, and check out some books from the library the next time we go.  I'm probably going to accidentally tell them something inaccurate, or leave out a relevant detail. The point is not to make them experts on the term, just to familiarize them, one story at a time, one evolving list at a time.

Stars and Stripes
Thomas Jefferson

*Even using the word citizen caused me to pause. I used the word to mean "someone who participates in society" in a very general sense. But I started thinking about the people my kids know who are not US citizens, or who took different paths to citizenship. It's important that we all have an accurate definition of terms like this, or it becomes impossible to understand or participate in discussions about it. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that Laurel and Marko would enjoy some close-up experience of Thomas Jefferson. Monticello has many features for children now. When Caetie and Claire came in 2010, the staff provided quills, ink, paper (and aprons) so they could write something with a quill pen and take it home with them. There are special kids' tours given by guides who pull things out of a bag and pass them around. It's a mere 10 minutes away from Aunt Mary's B&B.