A Skeptical View on Teaching the Founding Documents

One component of the Common Core State Standards that has grabbed my attention is its emphasis on primary documents from American history in English classes. Literacy standard 11-12.9, which applies to English classes for high school juniors and seniors, reads that students should be able to “Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.” This comes just as the CollegeBoard has redesigned the SAT to focus more on the “Great Global Conversation” of United States founding documents. While I understand the desire to promote engagement with civic issues, there are a few concerns that I think teachers and policymakers should keep in mind when engaging with these kinds of texts.

  1. There is more than one way to interpret all of the founding documents of the United States, and the more unsavory interpretations may well be downplayed by teachers. One example of this is that the United States Constitution was written as a document that endorsed slavery as a viable and generally acceptable public policy, endorsing the notion that slaves should only be counted as three-fifths of a person. Another example is that the original Constitution contained no protections of voting rights, the notion of equal protection, or equal suffrage for men and women. I worry that nuances like these may sometimes be washed over when teachers try to develop lessons around founding documents. Teachers who attempt to illuminate these flaws in the Constitution may well be accused of spreading anti-American ideas, as the CollegeBoard was when it attempted to teach a nuanced view of American history in its Advanced Placement classes. Frankly, I’m not sure if every teacher in this country can withstand the social pressure will enough to teach these documents with the proper context and criticism.
  2. Another big question that I have about teaching an English class using the founding documents is that they don’t actually work that well as literature. In my opinion, the difficulty of the language used, which I think many well-educated people would still struggle to understand, is past the level of difficulty necessary to get at a healthy frustration level of reading (which I’ve defended before). Simply put, the founding documents just don’t sound very much like everyday language, so the frustration isn’t justifiable in the same way that reading a newspaper with technical language is. I think frustration is much more justified if it leads to a better understanding of commonly-used language, but the early modern English of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is not representative of common language now.

I do think that it’s important that we teach civic values in school. I’m alarmed by the increasing popularity of fact-free propaganda in the media, and I think a fair analysis of founding documents could be a very good way to counteract that force. Even still, I don’t think that these texts belong in a literature class as much as they do in a history class. Literature classes should be focused on building analytic skills that kids will be able to use for the rest of their lives, and I just don’t think that the founding documents lead to the development of those skills.

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One Response to A Skeptical View on Teaching the Founding Documents

  1. haydenvick says:

    Geoffrey,

    This is such an interesting topic to me, mostly because Civics was one of my favorite classes in high school and I’m a History major in college. I think there should be an even balance between celebration and criticism of historical documents such as the Constitution, and I think this is especially important for middle and high school teachers. Students’ first experiences interpreting American historical documents should be open to their own opinions and criticisms. I completely agree that these lessons should stay in social studies classes, rather than language arts. Many thanks for your thoughts on this!

    -Hayden

    Like

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