Philadelphia Inquirer – October 10, 2016
We used to call it “presidents and wars.” Until the end of the 20th century, American history was generally presented in schools as a succession of conflicts with a focus on the leaders who guided us through them: Washington and the Revolution, Lincoln and Civil War, Wilson and the Great War, FDR and WW2.
Things became a little trickier after Vietnam and LBJ and Nixon. Faith in presidents, in America’s military. and in “the establishment” was shaken. Partly as a result of this shift, other sorts of history began to receive more attention.
All born in 1999 or 2000, they were toddlers on 9/11. Although the United States has been engaged in military conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East almost all of their lives, they do not view their country’s history primarily in terms of presidents and wars.
Twenty percent of the figures they listed were women. Most were abolitionists or women’s and civil rights activists, among them Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Alice Paul, and Harriet Tubman. Almost exactly the same fraction of the total were African Americans and most of that group were also seen by the students as civil rights activists, even if they were also scholars, athletes, or writers. They included W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Malcolm X.
To these 21st-century teenagers, the most important history is social history. They would have trouble coming up with the names of Civil War battles other than Gettysburg, but they can easily recall several cities in which large-scale protests have followed the shooting of African American men by police in the past two years. And they are witnessing a presidential election campaign in which for the first time a major party ticket is led by a woman. When they think about American history they focus on the struggles of oppressed groups within our society to gain recognition and equal rights.
One of the first documents we read in September was the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641), an early collection of rights and laws. The second of these liberties reads, “Every person within this jurisdiction, whether inhabitant or foreigner, shall enjoy the same justice and law, that is general for the [colony].” The students selected many figures who spent their lives fighting to make this principle of equality before the law a reality, and they see those battles still going on across the country.
Among their top three, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama tied for second. Obama’s prominence is a reminder that he was elected president when these students were in the third grade. He is the only president they have known. That he and the president who led the Union through the war that ended slavery appear beside each other is fitting. Obama recognized the tie himself when in 2009 he chose to take the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible.
The clear first place went to Martin Luther King Jr. More than half of the students (most of them white) wrote his name and many assumed they did not need to say why.
In this deeply divided political and social climate, King’s words from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail could hardly be more relevant, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice.”