Judging Mr. Gadsden

“… of course, you need to get students to see the events of the past the way that people at the time saw them,” the assistant principal explained to me.

I was getting some advice about how to set goals for my classes in U.S. history from a high school administrator who had never actually taught at the high school level.  I nodded and tried to shift the conversation in another direction.  I was fighting the urge to add a little nuance to his comment, but I knew that this man did not handle nuance well.

I understood what he was trying to say.  It is not enough to get kids to remember a set of events; they can’t really understand why things unfolded the way they did without an appreciation for the context in which they occurred.

But I also knew that part of the process of understanding the past is developing an awareness of one’s own context in the present day.  We can’t help but be who we are.  We have our own set of values and priorities. We operate from a “conventional wisdom” that is informed by the successes and the failures of the past.  We assess, we evaluate, we judge those around us – and sometimes we learn something new and change our opinions.  It is a good exercise for students of history to try to understand the perspectives of those who lived in different times.  But the idea that we suspend all judgement and immerse ourselves in the past, setting aside our values and opinions in favor of those of people from another era … well, that just seems wrong to me.  It seems like yet another way to reinforce the idea that history is irrelevant to people today.  As a history teacher, that is the last thing I want my students to believe.

History lives.  You can see its power and influence all around us, if you know how to recognize the signs.  And sometimes, you can see the appropriation of historical images and ideas, dusted off and repurposed with new messages and new meanings.

Earlier this year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a ruling in a case brought by an African American worker against a fellow employee alleging that the co-worker’s insistence on wearing a cap with the image of the Gadsden flag constituted racial harassment.  The complaint had stated that the cap was offensive because the image had been created by a slave owner and trader in human beings.  The EEOC found that the historical usage of the Gadsden flag during the Revolutionary era was not racist, but that the appropriation of the flag in recent years by the Tea Party movement and by certain white supremacists raised the question of whether it had acquired a racist connotation today.  The EEOC ruled that it would not dismiss the complainant’s case until evidence on the modern meaning of the flag could be presented.

Gadsden_flag.svgI am curious about what the EEOC will eventually decide.  I am always interested when historical images are used to power contemporary arguments.  Images and messages can change over time.

But I wonder about the argument that the judges in the case seemed to dismiss so lightly.  So the flag was not used in the past to promote a racist message.  What about the fact that it was produced by a man, Christopher Gadsden, who was clearly a racist – a man whose livelihood depended on activities that would not only be illegal, but would be condemned today as immoral and unforgivable?

We are accustomed to giving our “founding fathers” a pass when it comes to slavery.  We tend to try to see things the way they must have seen them.  We judge that this massive conspiracy to violate the human rights of millions was merely a moral oversight.  We declare that our “fathers” were heroes in the context of their times.  Let’s just ignore the fact that they would be criminals today.  Let’s declare them to be heroes of modern times as well.

We seem to have decided – at least in history class – that we need Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, and many, many others to be heroes.  But why?  Surely, as with all people, there are some things about these figures that are worthy of admiration, even emulation.  But there are other things that merit condemnation.  In some cases, their reprehensible acts are so unforgiveable as to taint even their most positive contributions.

Is slavery one of those reprehensible acts?  Should we revoke hero status from all those who worked to sustain the practice for so many generations?

This is a serious question, with an answer that depends both on an appreciation of the perspectives of those who lived in the past and on the values and judgement of those who study history today.

Why not give students the tools to answer the question for themselves?

_______

An article on the case involving the Gadsden flag image on a hat  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/08/03/wearing-dont-tread-on-me-insignia-could-be-punishable-racial-harassment/?utm_term=.f446fa548458

Leave a comment

Filed under history

Cecily, and the way we remember what we’ve learned

The first thing I did was to flip through the pages looking for my name.  There it was at the bottom of page 50 – an easy number to remember, I noted.  It was pretty exciting; a former student had just published a book and had mentioned me in it. [1]

Cecily was a student in my AP US History class about ten years ago.  She was interested in theatre and social issues, and seemed to appreciate history.  Once I began to have conversations with her I realized that she had experienced a rather chaotic home life.  Both parents were alive and well, but apparently they were unable to take care of their 16-year-old daughter.  So she lived with a foster mother – a beautiful and charismatic woman named Nairobi that Cecily had met through a theatre group.

My first memory of her is that she came up to me and introduced herself – something a lot of teenagers wouldn’t do on a dare.  She was a new student in a small school where many of her classmates had known each other since preschool.  But she seemed to have no trouble making friends and finding ways to feed her interests.  And she certainly made an impression on people.

As the year went on, Cecily made an impression not only in my class, but also on the school’s mock trial team, where her quick intelligence and theatrical skills made her an unstoppable force.  She also, and perhaps most importantly as it turned out, became a leader in the Student Political Action Club (SPAC).  I have written about Cecily and about SPAC before. [2]

Cecily spent only one year at Decatur High School, where I taught at the time.  The following year she was at nearby Grady High School.  I heard some updates on how she was doing through her friends on the mock trial team, and then didn’t hear Cecily’s name again until about two years ago.

I received an email notice of a fundraising reception for a local woman who had been arrested and jailed during Occupy Wall Street.  She had been held in the prison on Riker’s Island for about two months, where she came face-to-face with the routine violations of prisoners’ human rights.  She was now fighting legal battles of her own while trying to mobilize support for prisoner’s rights and other social justice issues.

I went to the reception not really sure whether Cecily would remember me.  To my great surprise and pleasure, she greeted me enthusiastically and told me that I was a big part of the reason she had embraced the fight for social justice, and that SPAC had been an awakening experience for her.

A few months later we got together for a real conversation.  By this time, she was writing her book, her legal problems seemed to be mostly past the crisis stage, and there was time to reflect.  She told me that many members of her generation were frustrated, and that Occupy Wall Street had spoken to some widespread fears and anger.

“We did everything the way they told us to – worked hard in school, filled our schedule with extracurricular activities so we would be able get into the best college we could, got the degree, then went out into the world to find that the future we had been promised just wasn’t there.  So now we are competing with each other for that assistant manager’s job at Starbuck’s and wondering what it was all for,” she explained.  “There is a real feeling among many people my age that we were lied to, and that the system was rigged all along to benefit a few while most of us have ended up wildly overqualified for the opportunities that are actually available.”

I have thought about these words many times since that conversation.  I have considered how the Occupy movement has fed other actions for social change, and how the frustration Cecily described most likely fed into the support among young people this past year for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. I wonder how this sense of unease will contribute to the shaping of Cecily’s generation as they proceed through life and make their mark on the world.

But I am not sure I got the words she spoke that day exactly right.  And with the passage of time, I may have changed the message to fit what I needed to hear, regardless of what she was trying to communicate.  In the end, it is kind of irrelevant.  I came away with what felt like an insight, information that would inform my interactions with millennials, and a tool I could use to interpret history as it is being made.  So if my attempt to recreate a statement from a conversation that happened over a year ago is a little off – or even a lot – it doesn’t matter that much to me.  We take from life’s experiences what we need.

What is clear to me in reading Cecily’s book was that she took what she needed from her experiences with me as her teacher, mock trial coach, and faculty sponsor of SPAC.  And that’s great.  That’s exactly the way it is supposed to work.

I couldn’t be more pleased with how she described me.  “He was tall and bald with a whimsical step, a sharp mind, and sometimes, a sharp tongue.  He didn’t teach, he told stories; he didn’t sit at his desk … he zigzagged around us, pulling us in with his variety-show style …. Mr. Patton never told us how to think, but he did inform us where we had come from as Americans and challenged us to seriously consider what our country had become since and what changes should happen next.”

And I don’t care that a couple of details are a little off.  The lesson she described featuring Olaudah Equiano’s account of the Middle Passage was not part of the unit on the abolitionist movement, it was in the unit on colonization.  I think it is important for people to realize that there were Africans in Virginia before there were Pilgrims in New England.  The fact that Cecily remembers this window into the experience of slavery as part of the movement to end it says a lot about her attitude towards social justice.

Even more telling is the way she remembers me teaching about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.  I did show her class a video describing a student-led action to protest the segregation of schools in Farmington, Virginia.  I remember that the Birmingham action is described in a packet of readings I distributed during the unit on the Civil Rights Movement.  I may have discussed it with the members of SPAC – I really don’t recall.  But I didn’t really “teach” about the Children’s Crusade.  That was something Cecily learned about at her own initiative.  What I did was encourage her to learn, to pursue the things that had meaning for her, and to act on what she believed.  The fact that she attributed this part of her learning experience to my teaching is flattering, but the truth is more impressive.

The ideal role for a teacher to play is not storyteller – although stories are a great way to fire the imagination, not variety show ringleader – although there are many ways to engage young learners and a good teacher should have a lot of tricks up his sleeve.  The ideal role is for a teacher to encourage and support his students to learn in a way that is meaningful to them – and to discover for themselves the true value of knowledge and insight.

I am delighted and quite honored that Cecily mentioned me in her book, and that she seemed to take something useful from her interactions with me.  She was an unforgettable student, and I am very pleased now to have the chance to see a bit of how her life is unfolding.  I am humbled by her generosity in giving me any credit for her education and accomplishments.  I am also impressed with her skill in storytelling and a bit awed by her resilience in the face of significant obstacles.

Buy her book.  It is a very readable tale of a remarkable young woman.  The part with me in it starts on page 50.

_______

[1] The Emancipation of Cecily McMillan

[2] Freedom of Speech versus the Criminal Consequences

 

Leave a comment

Filed under students & teachers

Finding your way back

A toddler with a newborn brother asked her parents for some time alone with the infant child.  Her parents allowed her to go into her brother’s room, but the door was left open enough so that they could hear.  The little girl asked the newborn, “Baby, tell me what God feels like.  I’m beginning to forget.”[1]

I heard this story recently and it resonated with me particularly because of another story I encountered last week.

Fleet Maull is the founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute and the National Prison Hospice Association.  A friend forwarded to me an interview he gave a few years after his own release after 14 years of incarceration.  He describes the sense of enchantment with the world he felt as a child.[2]

“When I was very young I remember life as being kind of magical, very vivid, I had a sense of being plugged in to reality. At some point in early childhood- probably about the time of starting school I really remember that fading and the world going from being very vivid and very colorful to being kind of black and white and losing that sense of magic.”

He goes on to say that he tried to make peace with the loss of magic as he went through childhood, but once he left the restrictive environment of high school, he discovered drugs and the counter-culture movement and felt again that sense of exhilaration he thought he had lost.

Fleet Maull believes he understands the source of high-risk behavior among youth – the kind of actions that led ultimately to his own imprisonment on drug trafficking charges.

“Yeah, all the high-risk behavior…. That’s exactly what those behaviors are all about. A lot of at-risk youth are seeking these edgy activities in ways that are very self-destructive – I think they’re just trying to connect with being alive.”

The story of the toddler and the story of Fleet Maul share a common thread – the loss of something special as we go through life.  Whether we describe it as a sense of magic or the presence of God, there is something powerful and yet elusive that everyday life has a way of tamping down.

This something special exists on a spiritual plane, and while we can evoke it with exciting activities, it is really something that exists inside of ourselves.  It is an openness to the wonder and beauty of life, an openness to God.

Most of us have at least at some time or another looked back on our childhoods and felt a sense of loss.  Once we were in a world full of things we couldn’t understand with our eyes wide open and our hearts completely fearless, embracing wonder as the natural way to experience life.  And then our eyes narrowed.  As children in school, and as adults, we have lived in a world of concrete realities and of defined knowledge, and learned that unanswered questions are often counted as wrong.  In this world, wondering is a form of weakness.  We long to find our way back to that earlier state – where we can remember how it feels to be in the presence of God, where we embrace the magic of the world in which we live.

Is finding our way back by going outside the rules really the best we can do?

How can we create a school environment that encourages openness?  We tend to see schools as structured environments where children can learn about order and discipline, where discovery is second to indoctrination in a preselected curriculum.  But does it have to be that way?

Let’s find our way forward.

______________

[1] http://www.chickensoup.com/book-story/36275/sachi

[2] http://www.mbaproject.org/fleet-maul-after-14-year-locked-up/

Leave a comment

Filed under 21st century schools

Weeds

Why don’t they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything?  If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.

– Will Rogers

Will was onto something.  You can’t stop people from doing what they want to do, and sometimes if you call attention to it by making it illegal, they want it even more.

As summer break turns abruptly into the first week of school, it is worth devoting a few minutes to pondering over the changes that are in store for millions of American school children.  How many are looking forward to bookbags and bells and hard plastic chairs?  How many are going to try to manage an early wake-up time without adjusting their time for turning in?  How many are leaving behind activities that they chose, that give the opportunities to learn and develop expertise as well as pride in accomplishment, and turning to a state-mandated activity that takes most of their day and leaves them feeling bored or inept?

It may seem odd for an educator to dismiss schooling as an unwanted distraction from the important experience of summer vacation, but I am pretty sure that – like Will Rogers – I am onto something.

People learn naturally.  It is in our DNA.  Children learn like they are starved for knowledge.  They spring hungry from the womb.  But the way we learn matters.  We learn best if we want the knowledge we are getting.  We learn best if we get it ourselves instead of having someone give it to us.  Does this sound like school?

Most schools act as the dispensers of knowledge and the arbiters of the relative value of knowledge.  I was once at a workshop for teachers of Advanced Placement classes – courses in which the sheer volume of information taught can be staggering for students who are unprepared.  The leader suggested organizing the information into three categories: [1] need to know, [2] nice to know, and [3] not necessary to know.  We should focus our instruction on category [1], sprinkle in flavor from category [2], and try to avoid category [3].  We only have so much time to prepare students for their high-stakes test, after all.

But there was no mention of the idea that students could decide for themselves which information goes in which category.  And yet this of course is what every student does.  The danger is that students may be inclined to take everything that somebody else insists belongs in category [1], and place it into their own category [3].

The AP workshop was, ultimately, about the allocation of limited time.  Teachers should relieve students of the time-consuming trial-and-error of deciding what is good and valuable information, they said.  But it is through trial and error that we understand why a particular bit of knowledge is good for us.  Is it really the best use of time if the focus is on the information that is presented and not on the learning that might take place?

Children learn, even in the most restrictive environments.  Like weeds pushing their way through the cracks in the pavement, young learners represent life in an environment that is all too often straight, narrow, and dead intellectually.

What do you see when you look at a sidewalk overgrown with weeds?  Do you see something that needs to be controlled – or do you see life?

What do you see when you look at young people in school?

Leave a comment

Filed under 21st century schools

Extended family

Schools should be places where young people are nurtured, challenged, exposed to the possibilities of the world, granted a safe haven for growth and reflection.

Families should be places where young people are nurtured, challenged, exposed to the possibilities of the world, granted a safe haven for growth and reflection.

Schools and families should support each other in their separate, but deeply interconnected roles.

Both of these time-honored institutions serve these functions well … at times.  All too often each one fails in its most important purpose.

Schools are too often devoted to crowd management instead of personal development.  They focus on the transmission of information instead of the ultimate goal of all this knowledge – the development of insight and wisdom.  Schools play the game of numbers – budgets, resources, test scores – and lapse into treating the impressionable young persons in their charge as objects to fit into the game.

Schools should pick up where the family leaves off, with concern for each child as an individual, helping each student develop and achieve goals that will bring personal fulfillment.

But sometimes families fall short as well.

Families often suffer from the stresses of daily life, financial vulnerability, overextension of resources.  Families might reinforce antisocial behavior, force hasty decisions by immature actors, mask or make excuses for dysfunctional relationships instead of providing a means to heal. Families sometimes neglect the personal development of their members to focus on social status, economic gain, or even momentary pleasure.

But families are – in the context of the social universe – our point of origin, and our home.  Each one of us deserves to have a family that is a source of strength, and a place to invest with hope for the future.  And each one of us is both the product of and a contributor to a family.

Schools see the benefit of strong families.  Any teacher will tell you that a child who comes to class imbued with high expectations and confidence instilled at home will succeed.

But a child whose energies at home are devoted to surviving, who sees failure as the most likely option, will struggle to meet the expectations of his teachers.  Sometimes such a child will see success on anyone else’s terms as an impossibility.  This child will seek his own form of success, his own educational agenda.  But the school will mark him as a failure, and eventually will make him an outcast.  He is not.  He is what he always was – an individual.

Children learn.  Children strive.  Children seek to find themselves.  It is in their nature, and it happens whether or not they have supportive families or school environments.  Children know success because they can feel it.  They crave it.  And they will seek it whether or not someone helps them find the way.  This is why it is so important that children have an environment that helps them to learn and grow.

Children need strong and supportive families. Children need schools that respect their individuality and facilitate the discovery and exploration of their greatest potential.

How can we guarantee for our children the kind of schools and families that they need?  Is it a hopeless task?

I don’t think so ….

Leave a comment

Filed under 21st century schools

Family

What is the model for a good school?

For many months on this blog, I have argued and explored the proposition that our nation’s public schools are not as good as they should be.  I have decried the emphasis on testing as detrimental to the goals of education.  In years of teaching, writing about, and discussing issues in education, I have encountered very few who disagreed with these two points.

I have also questioned the goals of public education, explored the history of education in this country as a function of social and economic needs.  In colonial New England, public schools were created to teach children how to read the Bible and to participate in a social order based on Puritan principles. In early 20th century America, public schooling was seen as a way to assimilate immigrant children and prepare young workers for jobs in industry.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, schools are expected to be run like a modern business, data-driven and results-oriented.  And quite a few Americans are optimistic about the possibilities of data to guide policy and the “accountability” found in the business model.

But I think that the business model for schools is a terrible guide, and I question strongly the notion that any worthwhile data can come from standardized tests.

A few weeks ago, I posed a question.  Instead of looking to business as the model for success in education, why not look to another, more universal human institution – the family?

The most fundamental social structure is the family, and the most essential function of the family is the nurturing and education of young people.  In the absence of schools – whether historically before they existed, or where they are not available today – families serve the function we typically assign to formal education.  They identify children’s strengths and needs, and support children’s growth and acquisition of knowledge, catch them when they fall, and try to set them on a course that will lead to success in life.

To be sure, not every child has the kind of supportive family we would wish for everyone.  But we have long understood that this is a gap that needs to be filled.  We strive to address these deficiencies through social institutions such as adoption, social services, community organizations, and even public education itself.  Whether explicitly or not, we recognize the importance of a strong, supportive family, and when one is not present we try to make up the difference.

So then, acknowledging that in the world in which we live there are all sorts of less-than-perfect family configurations and improvised solutions, let’s consider the ideal.  Let’s look at the kind of family we would wish everyone had and see if its characteristics can be applied to schools.

  • A family is multigenerational.  There are people of greatly different ages and vastly different needs and abilities.  And yet they are all part of a cohesive and cooperative one.
  • A family provides continuity in an environment of change.  Families watch their members grow up, turn from helpless to capable, from productive to honored. In the midst of this cycle they leave the nest, sometimes to return, sometimes to build a new nest and start a new family.  But changes in age and ability do not mean leaving behind those who helped us to grow.  We do not graduate from family; it is a lifetime appointment.
  • A family cares about each member as a unique individual.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own goals, and whatever expectations are set for all family members, each one may reach those goals in his or her own way.
  • A family is limited in size.  Of course, if we expand the family tree far enough we discover that we have multitudes of relatives.  But our family is the members that we know and love, for whom we feel responsible and in whom we take pride.  We may express a love for humanity, but it is an abstract expression directed at a collection of strangers.  We know and care about the members of our family in a way that is personal.

Schools should embody each of these values.

AGE

A school should include a broad range of ages – at least grades K-12.  Sure, it makes some administrative sense to divide public resources into different schools for different ages – but as any parent knows, what is cheapest is not always what is best for the children.  Segregating all students who are entering puberty into middle schools is asking for trouble.  At an age when kids are quite naturally searching for identity and asserting themselves against authority, we remove from their environment all positive role models who are members of their own generation.  The result is often a police state in which the search for identity is stifled and conformity to rules is the only rewarded behavior.  This is simply wrong.

Children – especially those undergoing rapid and disorienting periods of developmental change – should be in an environment in which they are reminded of the continuity of life.  Older kids look after younger kids and are rewarded for being good role models.  Younger kids look up to the members of their generation who have dealt with the transitions they are now experiencing for advice, for examples of coping strategies, and for models of success.  Brothers and sisters support each other.  In the extended family of a school, all members of the community should feel a responsibility for each other and see each other as a resource for learning and growing.

CONTINUITY

Schools should pay attention to the fact that students not only learn in stages of their development, but also across the span of their lives.  Schools should take advantage of the fact that children grow up within the community and it is not only possible, but quite natural to follow and to be involved with that development over many years.  A student’s 4th grade teacher has an expertise and interest in that child that is not extinguished at the end of the academic term.  There is no reason for a productive, supportive relationship between two people to end just because one has a job teaching a 4th grade curriculum and the other is in 8th grade.  Families do not construct such artificial barriers, and neither should schools.

Children need continuity in relationships with the people they trust.  In a school with a broad range of ages, the expectations should include open communication and productive relationships that supersede job descriptions and age classifications.

INDIVIDUALITY

People are different.  Exploring these differences and the creative possibilities waiting to be discovered in the diversity of the human race is one of the joys of living.  There is a valid purpose in teaching children how to “play the game” of social expectations – and families do this well.  But rarely do families quash individual brilliance for the sake of conformity.  Families celebrate the talents and encourage the interests of their children.  Schools all too often discourage – even punish – any behavior that does not contribute to order and discipline.  Schools treat the normal range of differences within the human race as a problem – one that must be suppressed and ultimately eliminated.

Children should be encouraged to explore their talents and interests.  If it requires unique accommodations on the part of the school, so be it.  We have to move away from the concept that the primary goal in operating a school is efficiency.  Efficiency, conformity, and even order, should secondary to supporting the development of individual students – sometimes in directions unanticipated by their parents and teachers.

SIZE

Every school should be small enough that it is possible for every person in that community to know every other person.  This promotes accountability and responsibility, and eliminates some of the artificial barriers that keep us from helping each other.  There is no excuse for placing a child in an environment where he or she feels anonymous or lost.

Children need to be in an environment where they feel they belong.

Some schools embody these values, mostly private schools that are not bound by traditional concepts of a quality education.  Many schools – public schools included – embody some of these values.  This is perfectly natural.  The teaching profession tends to attract individuals who care about the development of the whole child (not just the part that is taking Algebra this semester).  Children tend to seek out others who can help them learn and grow – those they feel they can trust.

The fact is, the family model for a school is a better fit for how human beings actually learn and grow and relate to each other than the typical model of a public school as it has developed in this country.  We need to take a serious look at the way we are attempting public education and ask if we want to continue down the path we are on, or try something better, something that makes intuitive sense, something we already know how to do.

2 Comments

Filed under 21st century schools

Revolutionary history

stone.tif

The way we view history and the heritage we chose to honor depends a great deal on our opinions about the world we live in today.  Consider the following interpretations of our nation’s birth.

The evolving cause of liberty

The nation called the United States of America was born in a revolution that was grounded in liberal ideals.  The American people rose against an oppressor whose villainy consisted most notably of offensive tax and monetary policies, and forged a Constitution based on principles of rights that went far beyond limiting government’s power to tax.

American revolutionary society is based in the core cultural values of Enlightenment era Europe, and is innovative and forward-moving.  It is evolving, constantly seeking to fulfill its destiny – formed at conception – to vindicate the rights of its citizens against oppressive power.  This American mission is a source of inspiration and comfort to oppressed people around the world.

As time brings changes, as new technology becomes available, as new insights into human psychology are revealed, so new forms of oppression do arise.  It is necessary for the continuing American revolution that these threats to liberty are met with a refreshed understanding of the rights enunciated in the Constitution.

Thus, for instance, the right to be secure in our homes – to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures – guaranteed by the 4th amendment, can in modern times be understood to extend to forms of electronic surveillance that would have been unimaginable to James Madison.

The American revolution lives, and evolves to serve the evolving needs of the people who fought for its principles.

On the other hand …

The American tradition of self-government

The American revolution was a conservative one.  Americans did not seek to overthrow the established order of power and authority, only redress grievances that had become so intractable under King George III that independence from Britain was the least disruptive option available.

In fact, the established order for the colonies included a substantial degree of political independence already.  The English American colonies had experienced a lot of self-government in their century-and-a-half pre-revolutionary period.  Every one of the 13 colonies had a locally-elected legislature that exercised most of the authority over taxing and spending.

For most of the pre-revolutionary period, England had been so consumed with its own problems that it paid relatively little attention to North America.  The most notable actions the English government had taken with regards to its colonies had been to drive the Dutch out of their mid-Atlantic coastal claims and defend the English settlers from the French to the north and west.  England was protecting its empire.  But internal affairs of government in the colonies were largely left up to local authorities.

This experience with self-government gave Americans confidence that cutting ties with Great Britain would not lead to chaos.  Indeed, political independence had become the status quo in English North America.  It was recent actions by the British government that had provoked the independence movement.

After the French and Indian War, the British stepped up both their efforts to regulate trade with the colonies and their military presence within North America.  The notorious Stamp Act, Tea Act and Quartering Act prompted colonial discontent that was so worrisome to the British government that it further expanded its authority and enacted the Intolerable Acts and suspended the meetings of some colonial assemblies.

The American revolution was a fight against the abuse of power and the over-regulation of economic activities by the national (British) government.

So …

Clearly, the American revolution can be described as ongoing, evolving, and concerned mainly with personal liberties.  It can alternatively be described as concerned chiefly with the right of self-government and freedom from economic oppression.

Why does it matter?  Because just as the past shapes the present, our perceptions of the present shape our perceptions of the past.  Ultimately, understanding the events of more than two centuries ago can only be accomplished through a modern prism.

If we are concerned primarily with personal liberties, we are on guard against all forms of oppression, whether originating in the public or private sphere.  We may be willing to strengthen the hand of government to protect our freedom.  But in so doing, we strengthen the hand of a potential oppressor.

If we are concerned primarily with economic freedom, our focus is on limiting the regulatory authority of government.  We rely on faith in market forces and local decision-making. But we may ignore at our peril forms of oppression that originate in private enterprise.

Contemporary political philosophy will inevitably affect our conceptions of the meaning and significance of past struggles over political issues.  Contemporary social values will inevitably affect our opinions and understanding of past social norms and conditions. Whether the American revolution is ongoing and evolutionary or limited to a specific class of issues over political and economic power, is a matter of opinion.  But such opinions can have great consequence when they are used by lawmakers to shape policies for the future.

flag-1291945_960_720

1 Comment

Filed under civics, history