Saturday, December 19, 2015

Which is the real "American" value: Toleration or xenophobia?

That's the question posed by a New York Times op-ed posted online yesterday, and to be published in tomorrow's Sunday Review section.

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author of books on historical topics like the Salem Witch Trial and Benjamin Franklin, argues that in fact it's both:
"[W]hile the demonizing may sound un-American, it happens also to be ur-American."
Her word-choice here (ur-American means "earliest" or "original") previews Schiff's thesis that a fear of threats to national security was always a part of the American identity.  She mines examples from the first European settlers and colonists to prove that thesis.

A long list of "[c]onspiratorial fantasies" concerning Quakers, Baptists, Irish Roman Catholics, and Native Americans were among those demonized by 17th-century Massachusetts Puritans, she writes.  Schiff draws a straight line from those early perceived threats to later actions against Mormons, Japanese internment, and today's "rhetorical fireballs" against Islam and Muslims.

Two Quakers Hung, but Mary Dryer is Freed, Boston, 1658
Classroom integration ideas:

The article -- just 12 paragraphs long -- would be a great source for a first activity once we return from winter break in January.

Warm-up: Ask students to define "xenophobia."  Then ask if they know of examples of xenophobia that specifically affected them or their family/friends, and if they have read/heard about examples of xenophobia occurring currently elsewhere in the world.  Then,
  1. Ask students to brainstorm examples of xenophobia we have studied so far this year.  (Examples could include the Alien Act under President John Adams and the American/Know-Nothing Party during the antebellum era.)
  2. Poll the class (using hands, or by voting with their cell phones on either socrative or poll everywhere) on this question: Which is the real "American" value: Toleration or xenophobia?
  3. Have students read Schiff's essay and underline each example of intolerance.  They should research each one, then plot each example on a timeline.
  4. Poll the class a second time, asking the same question.  Lead a discussion: Did anyone change her/his vote, and why?
  5. Conclusion: Students write a paragraph reflecting on the activity (describing their initial vote; summarizing Schiff's argument; and explaining whether their opinion changed as a result of the reading and/or class discussion).
Personal note:

This is my first post!

Thanks to Ken Halla for inviting me to join these blogs.  I've been a fan of his pioneering work integrating technology into classrooms for years, and I was honored when he asked me to contribute.  You'll also see me posting to his US Government Teachers blog.

Thanks also to George Coe, a friend and admired colleague, for first sending me the link to this article.

No comments: