One of the hats I wear is a teacher of English as a new language, mostly to new Americans. They all came here for a reason—for a better shot at happiness—and as such generally have a personal stake in the American Dream not only being a reality, but having room for them and their children, as well.
In order to present a full picture of the United States, however, I try to allow the students to draw their own conclusions from the country’s past: our relations with Native Americans, our Founding, our reactions to the various waves of immigrants, the history of slavery and its role in our governmental development, and the Women’s Rights, Civil Rights, and Gay Rights movements. The 2000 presidential election, for example, is a great lesson on our respect for governance institutions. I try to highlight the pressures and interests which explain what seems bad about American history and note the asterisks which often follow what seems good about American history.
In previous months, I have been asked questions which lead to teachable moments. An individual burning a Quran in Florida leads to a wonderful discussion of free speech and the path of 1st Amendment litigation during the 20th Century and where it stands today. A discussion on curbing climate change leads to a mention of the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore a lesson on the concept of dualism in international law. The controversies surrounding the Affordable Care Act can lead to an important lesson on federalism.
This past month has been different. Sure, the grand jury verdict regarding the death of Michael Brown led to a discussion about evidence and the presumption of innocence, but the verdict following the death of Eric Garner made the previous lesson feel hollow. Of course the CIA Torture Report can bring to the fore the separation of powers, but the existence of such programs which are so obviously “contrary to our values” is difficult to present in a non-judgmental way.
I love my country. I view America as a good literary protagonist: she has a complex past and she does make mistakes, but she’s affable and fundamentally good. These terrible news stories, however, have made explaining America more difficult and more troubling. Are Jim Crow and Korematsu really just skeletons in America’s closet, or are they examples of her deep flaws which she refuses to address? December 2014 suggests the latter.
The beauty and frustration of a federal republic is that no single institution can address these flaws alone. But America’s story is not over: We The People must actively engage in all levels of governance in order to write the chapter that we wish to read. Looking forward to 2015, I hope we write for America a better future, so when it eventually becomes the past itself, the job of explaining America will be an easy one.