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What my students must do

Think about these questions a minute. They all have to do with American History.

What most Americans know about history is built on myth, rumor, and hearsay. Most Americans don’t know much about their history. This is not just a failure of American education but also of national will.

Granted, my students learn much of what I’ll ask over the course of a semester, and I have learned it in over nine years of higher education (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.). But just about anyone who says they are familiar with American history should be able to know what the following questions are about, even if they can’t give a specific answer.

In fact, most Americans don’t even know what the New Deal was or who Teddy Roosevelt was, or even that the United States is an post-colonial-cum-imperial nation.

I just love it when some know-it-all comes at me–usually someone who listens to AM radio and Fox News talking heads–with ideologically loaded ideas about what they want to believe happened in the past (slavery was good for slaves, for instance, or the idea that states’ rights has nothing to do with racial domination of people of color or America won World War II by itself).

How many of the following can you answer? (The following are taken from Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! Vol. 2: Since 1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014) 

  1. For whites, no matter how defined, was a given, a birthright to be defended. For African Americans, it was an open-ended process, a transformation of every aspect of their lives and of the society and culture that that had sustained slavery in the first place. Defend this statement.
  2. Sitting Bull stated, “The life my people want is a life of freedom.” Likewise, Chief Joseph simply asked the government for equal rights enshrined by the law. Describe what freedom meant to the Indians and how that conflicted with the interests and values of most white Americans. Also, explain why white Americans did not allow Indians the opportunity to have American citizenship.
  3. By 1900, who was entitled to enjoy fully the blessings of American liberty? Be sure to consider farmers, women, labor, and immigrants in your answer.
  4. Compare and contrast the Populist and Progressive movements. Critically analyze why the Progressives movement seemed to have more success. What were the limitations of the Populist movement?
  5. It is April 1917, you are a member of Congress, and President Wilson wants a declaration of war. Justify your vote for or against war with Germany.
  6. The 1920s are commonly referred to as the “Roaring Twenties.” Document who was and who was not “roaring” in the 1920s. Your answer should illustrate the dichotomy of the decades.
  7. Compare the New Deal reforms with those of the Progressive Era. How did the New Deal reflect the reform traditions of the Progressive Era? Be sure to include in your answer a discussion about Roosevelt’s key Administrators.
  8. World War II is often referred to as “the Good War.” Evaluate that title for the war. Is it appropriate? Why or why not?
  9. The Cold War impacted every aspect of American life. Discuss the domestic implications of the Cold War. Your essay should explain how the Cold War affected higher education, the economy, immigration policy, civil rights, and civil liberties.
  10. Thinking back to the chapter on the 1920s, compare and contrast consumerism of that decade with the 1950s. How did economic prosperity of each decade affect Americans’ understanding of freedom?
  11. Write an essay on what participatory democracy means to you.
  12. The United States had a period of unprecedented economic boom from the end of World War II to the early 1970s. Offer a critique as to how America’s golden age had come to such an abrupt end by the end of the 1970s after peaking only a decade and a half earlier in the mid-1950s. What were the causes of its decline? What were the consequences for American organized labor and American consumers?
  13. In 2003, when asked whether it was more important for the government to guarantee freedom from want or freedom to pursue individual goals, only 35 percent of Americans selected freedom from want. Considering that Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms from World War II were mostly about private, or individual, freedoms, this attitude toward the government’s role in protecting the pursuit of happiness is not that surprising. Offer a critique on how America’s view of freedom at the end of the twentieth century evolved over the last half century. Conclude the essay with your thoughts on whether you believe the founding fathers would be pleased, and why or why not.
  14. Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath revealed to Americans the extent of poverty in the United States, as much earlier publications such as Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) had done. Compare the responses by the federal government and by the American people to those publications versus the aftermath of the hurricane. What do you believe needs to be done to alleviate poverty in the United States?


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