The Bothersome Assignment of Being American, A School Teacher’s Lesson Plan

The Bothersome Assignment of Being American
A School Teacher’s Lesson Plan

It’s nearly the school year and I’m a school teacher. This role confers a few prerogatives, like restating the obvious, discomforting certainties, and demanding a certain respect for the shared enterprise. It’s always hard not to be pedantic because America, for all of its storied history of quality higher education, is a country of doers, not thinkers. We are famous for hating the very education that is demanded of us to be Americans.

To learn a given subject is not to be educated. We are tasked to study closely, think critically, and formulate arguments, no matter the topic. But most of all we come to question who we are. In an American University it is imperative, no matter what the subject, to fathom what it means to be living in America and to be human on this fair planet in our 21st century. 

There are four commitments to our shared American heritage and values.

First, to be an American is to be, as Lincoln put it, “dedicated to a proposition” that all persons are equal and entitled to human rights. Dare we call this the noblest of human ideals? We are not a race, an ethnicity, a language, or any one culture but instead attempting something that challenges any of those norms to establish a new circumstance for life, liberty, and happiness. We are human beings, we have rights, and we mean to dedicate ourselves to their meaning and to one another.

Second, the Founders and the nation failed from the very outset to commit to their stated aspirations and values. Instead they built a nation on slavery, oppression, sexism, and discrimination. The incongruity between our ideals and our outcomes is not mere hypocrisy, it is essential to understanding the tasks of being American. What we say and what we aspire to be we have not yet been. What we have been admits to a struggle that we will not surmount or solve. To be an American is to remain in the perpetual contest between our shadow and the shining city on the hill we long to build.

Third, Americans must take up the civic and moral responsibility of our history and apply ourselves to both our aspirations and our failures. We turn to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others to teach us, to heal us, to invite us to the better angels of our nature. To be American demands more than enjoying the fruits of one’s labor and the freedom to pursue dreams. It means participating in the social and political processes that will empower us to our stated aspirational identity and to make amends for our shameful past.

Fourth, Americans must make the moral commitment to a shared human aspiration. This is not religious, though it may appear in the values of your religion. This is not partisan, though you may enjoy the privileges of partisan opinions. This is not a call to unity or to agreed policies, but instead to values that we must embody in law and execute with the ethical determination to meet our collective responsibilities. We owe something to more than ourselves as individuals or our immediate families. We owe to history a stark and clear affirmation of our greatness _and_ our original sins. We owe to one another the dignity and decency that commits to peaceful change and offers the American hope to all who share aspirations for freedom, life, and prosperity.

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