Sunday, September 2, 2012

Honor Labor Day – On Teaching Who Really Built This Country?

Chanting “We built it,” thousands of delegates to the Republican National Convention provided a distorted bumper-sticker summary of U.S. history. 

Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the overwhelmingly white crowd embraced unrestrained free-market ideology and cheered the inaccuracies of keynote speakers.

The crowd was particularly fired up by vice presidential candidate Paul “Pinocchio” Ryan’s speech. One Fox News commentator described the speech as an attempt “to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

The Republican Party’s “We Built It” mantra inevitably leads to two key questions: Who is “we?” What is “it?” These are important questions for children and teachers to examine together.

As these questions are studied, the “we” should not be limited to famous business people. Equally important, the “it” should go beyond railroads and factories and include our country’s all-important democratic institutions.

Stepping beyond the textbook
Teachers have a responsibility to teach the story of our nation in all its complexity and contradictions. That’s not easy, considering that most social studies text books at best obfuscate and at worst lie about the role enslaved Africans, immigrants, and working men, women and children of all races have played in building this nation.

As a teacher, I try to teach my students to not automatically believe everything they read or hear. I have them consider multiple points of view, investigate a variety of sources, and ask questions such as: “In whose self interest is one version of history versus another?” “What assumptions underlie a particular point of view?”

If I were in my fifth grade classroom this year, on the first day of school I’d probably show photos of the “We Built It” manifestations at the Republican National Convention. After explaining the context, I’d pose the questions: Who is the “we”? What is the “it?”

In hopes of whetting my students’ appetite for a year-long study of U.S. history – a requirement in most 5th grades – I’d lay out questions we would likely cover in the coming year, tying the questions to that day’s issue of “Who built it?” Some of questions I might ask:

  • Who were the first ones to cultivate the land in North America?
  • Who continues to harvest the vegetables and fruit of our nation?
  • Who built the plantations in the South?
  • Who built the skyscrapers of New York?
  • Who built the U.S. Capitol Building? (FYI, for teachers who might want to pursue this topic: the United States Capitol was built by enslaved Africans. See PBS, VOA and Politifact.)
  • Who fought for the rights of women to vote?
  • Who fought for Voting Rights and Civil Rights?
  • Who fought for the right of workers to organize unions at their workplace? For the eight-hour day? The right to collectively bargain?

As I tell my students as we study U.S. history, there have been great movements for social justice in the past, they exist now in the present, and they’ll exist in the future. Each of us must decide whether to participate in such movements to help make our nation and our world a more just place.

As we celebrate this Labor Day, I encourage teachers to be a part of our country’s strong tradition of social movements for justice. A first step is to teach about such movements — and about who really built “it.”

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A few sites for resources and ideas on teaching labor history:

For teaching about social justice movements see

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In case you missed it. According to the New York Times, the platform of the 1980 Republic Party supported the right to collectively bargain, while the current one does not. Other rightward shifts were made this year as well.
1980: We reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental principle of fairness in labor relations, including the legal right of unions to organize workers and to represent them through collective bargaining ...

Current: We salute the Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.

A question teachers might ask: Whose interests are served by the change in that particular platform?

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