As an 8th grade American history teacher, I should be excited about the opportunity to use this fall’s election as a way to bring history to life for my students. Instead, I find myself deeply frustrated at having to explain to my students that somehow the nation that they live in has not fully internalized the basic lessons of American democracy they are learning in class.
As our election draws ever closer, I see three areas in which our body politic could benefit from mastering the wisdom and civic maturity of my 8th graders. My students understand just how prophetic George Washington was when he warned against the dangers of political parties; they appreciate that American democracy is complicated and does not lend itself to simple answers; and they recognize that our democracy cannot function without strict protection of the freedom of speech.
As he was completing his second term, Washington issued a farewell address full of sage advice to the young nation. Some of his strongest words were reserved for a pointed warning of the “baneful effects” of political parties.
My 8th graders can explain the connection between the failure to heed Washington’s advice and the political rancor that would eventually lead to a civil war. Some of them can also connect Washington’s advice to the current lack of civility between our two major political parties. While it is highly unlikely that we are heading toward another civil war, a case can be made that the level of discord between the parties may be the 21st-century equivalent.
George Washington was far too wise to believe that the country could exist for a day, let alone 240 years, without disagreement. In fact, he was so committed to the power of vigorous debate that he regularly asked Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to sit in a room together and argue over national policies until they had both depleted their vast vocabularies. The difference between then and now is that they were both equally focusing on the needs of the country rather than those of a political party.
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My most recent class of 8th graders spent a year learning just how complicated it is to be a citizen of this great country. Our Constitution has been a model for every democracy that has emerged over the past two centuries. It is also a document that condoned slavery. In 1776, our founding Declaration presented the history-shattering idea that “all men are created equal.” That same nation did not extend the right to vote to women until 1920. It did not extend the right to nonwhite male citizens until 1870 or American Indians until 1924. It did not fully enforce those rights until 1965, with the Voting Rights Act.
My students also understand the challenging reality that our country occupies land that was occupied by hundreds of native civilizations prior to the first Europeans’ arrival on this continent. There are Americans who look at our country and see a history of evil actions taken to steal a continent, while using slaves to build an economy. They reach the far-too-easy conclusion that we are an evil nation. There are other Americans who reach the equally simple conclusion that our past is a series of justifiable steps on the path to creating a great nation.
My students understand just how prophetic George Washington was when he warned against the dangers of political parties."
Both perspectives are equally flawed. These points of view both take our nation’s complicated history and reduce it to oversimplified ideas. My 8th graders understand that there is no wisdom in trying to find simple answers to the complicated issues surrounding an equally complicated nation. Our nation’s leaders, and those who desperately desire to be our leaders, would do well to understand this.
My 8th graders also understand that the key to our complex democracy is the right to free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. They understand that what makes free speech complicated is the simple fact that it is granted to all.
Many in politics and academia are trying to adapt the freedom of speech to somehow include a freedom from offense. If one American’s freedom of speech can be limited because another American feels offended by his words, then freedom of speech no longer exists.
Our nation’s language has certainly become riddled with words and phrases that are intended to incite anger and violence. Such words should not be tolerated. However, we cannot allow this small segment of speech to expand and challenge the foundation of democracy. The more I learn, the more I understand that the greatest benefit of democracy is not that we get to collectively choose our leaders, it is the fact that every day we get to decide which ideas carry the greatest value. Great Americans have secured their places in history by trusting their ideas and submitting those ideas to the thoughts and free-speech rights of others. My 8th graders understand that this ongoing debate of ideas is what made our country great.
We live in the greatest nation on earth. That privilege comes at a price. Our nation faces serious and complex issues that can only be addressed by those who recognize the complexity of what it means to be an American. In the face of these monumental issues, I hope we will embrace the challenges and join my students in striving to gain the wisdom needed to be Americans.
A version of this article appeared in the July 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Wisdom of an 8th Grader