I have been a student since 2003 when I first attended pre-school. My time in school was enjoyable and fun enough that I decided that I wanted to become a teacher. Spending so many years in school has been a privilege, and many school experiences have made me the person that I am today. Being at the University of Toledo has opened my eyes to many new perspectives in culture, diversity, and identity. There are a few things I have gathered during my education, as part of the opportunities presented to me, that I will always remember. One of these ideas is that America is a wonderful place, but it is not easy to maintain. Therefore, I believe that students should learn what it means to be a part of the team that is the United States of America. Not the Olympic team that competes once every few years, but the team that is comprised of all citizens of this nation who all know what it means to be an American and how to be involved in democratic activities. Several things threaten our democracy, and it is up to teachers to prepare students for democracy, not an alternative. I will be discussing two characteristics of the American Creed, principles that unite citizens, that students should know. In addition, I will address the tasks I have as a teacher to help future generations advance and preserve democracy.
The American Creed is the shared identity of values and ideas that unite all Americans together regardless of race, gender, or political affiliation onto one team that has the shared goal of maintaining and defending democracy. It is what all Americans should remember in times of turmoil and doubt in the country. One speaker in the film American Creed, Eric Lou, defined the creed as “not just a bunch of legalistic principles… it is a civic religion.” I find it easy to relate to this definition because there are many activities that we can do as Americans that reinvest in our belief of America and its values. We can vote in elections, write letters to congressmen/woman, and/or voice our opinions through peaceful assembly. By participating in these acts, and many more, we fulfill our democratic duty as Americans. This civic religion is the mission that will unite Team U.S.A.
All great teams have individuals who are responsible for their actions, and Team U.S.A. is no different. Responsibility is one aspect of the American Creed that I would teach my students to help them understand democracy. This usage of responsibility is related to our freedom. Deidre Prevett spoke about this value in American Creed, where she stated, “We get to enjoy freedom, but freedom comes with a responsibility.” (2018) I find this value to be important because not all countries get to enjoy the freedoms that Americans do. This is a special place, and in order to keep it that way, we need to understand what our responsibilities are when it comes to upholding the nation. I learned the importance of responsibility for freedom while I was in Bahrain, a country in the Middle East. The laws there are different and being out of the United States made me realize that freedom is not free. I have a right as an American to be free, but only to the extent that my actions are responsible. To teach this value to students in school, I would give a list of hypothetical situations where the freedoms of one student are impacted by the actions of another student. I would provide examples of realistic scenarios in history where Americans have been irresponsible with their freedoms. I think this is important for students given the growing political divide and because it encourages students to listen to one another as they use their freedoms to express their beliefs.
Teams need to have a strong sense of trust. Without trust, a team cannot make it very far, and there is a weaker sense of identity if everyone feels like an individual instead of one entity. Trust is what has got the United States as far as it has gotten today, and it is another aspect I would want to address with my students in advancing democracy. I learned the importance of trust throughout my running career in high school. I ran cross country and would routinely run on relay teams during track. What do the best relay teams have that sets them above the rest? I believe it is chemistry and trust in one another that they have a common goal and will work together to achieve it. There were times when running with a certain group of people was easier because I trusted that our mission was the same and that we would all try our best to complete it. Joe Maddon touched on trust in American Creed, “The moment we trust one another; then we can build something.” (2018) I think this is relatable to the United States because we trust each other to believe in America. Trust is one reason why our democracy has lasted. This is an important value for students to learn because it will allow them to make informed friendship, voting, and life decisions.
In addition, trust builds culture. This is where my stance as an essentialist comes into play. Essentialism is important because it ensures that uniting principles and concepts will continue to be known from generation to generation. According to Oakes and Lipton (2006), the purpose and curriculum of essentialism are about “transmitting the culture” (p. 107) and about knowing “the basic skills necessary to preserve the culture and to enable constructive participation of the individual” (p. 107). These ideas are easily transferable to maintaining democratic involvement because our culture is engrained within a functional democracy. If students do not know the principles that guide our nation, then how will they know how to keep democracy running smoothly? Therefore, an essentialist approach towards all students knowing about democracy is vital to its survival. I would go through a ballot with government students and ask them to cast a mock ballot to illustrate this point. By doing so, they would establish who they trust more, and address what characteristics have earned the candidate their trust. If there were no sense of trust in America, I believe our democracy would have ended long ago. Trust is so important in holding something great together, and there should be trust embodied within every aspect of American life. Just as in my running career, members of Team U.S.A. need to trust one another to do what is right.
One task that I have as an educator in a democratic society to help preserve democracy for Team U.S.A. is to promote awareness about the value of different opinions because if this is not understood, our democracy appears fragile. Lately, I feel that our own democracy has failed in this regard by almost immediately discounting what the other party has to say about a bill or issue. Democracy cannot be advanced unless we take the time to listen to one another and listen to understand. There is no longer true freedom to express ideas freely without ridicule. This is one of the reasons why I feel that our democracy may be in trouble. According to Beane and Apple (2007), one of the principles that are essential to democracy is “the open flow of ideas, regardless of their popularity, that enables people to be as fully informed as possible” (p. 7). By not listening to those around us, we limit ourselves and our potential. Society is controlled by labels, and those often get in the way of trying to understand someone by who they are on the inside, and not what their label defines them as. Students in my classroom should always feel free to ask questions, provide feedback, and discuss problems with their classmates. They will be able to learn so much from each other as people. For participating in democracy, I resonate with the progressive approach because according to Oakes and Lipton, it “creates an environment rich with opportunities for student-directed learning and group problem solving” (p. 107). This approach gives all students the chance to participate in activities that reflect a democratic structure and that allow them to learn from each other. In these activities, students would have to listen to one another and work together to achieve success. Listening to understand is a key part of a democratic society, and group activities where a problem must be solved requires listening, even when there is disagreement. We must do a better job of seeing where other people are coming from, and how we can learn from a statement of which we disagree. I would want my students to know that new ideas, even if they are not common, are always welcome because our differences matter in a positive way, and they help our democracy and the American team if we are willing to learn from one another.
Team U.S.A. needs to be able to recognize when democracy is in demise so that the proper steps can be taken to get America back on the path to advancement instead of the path of decline. I can do this by teaching my students about times where, how, and why democracy has failed so that they know the warning signs of a team in distress. In the past, the classic coup has almost always overthrown democracy, but ever since the Cold War, a more silent killer of democracy has emerged. Destroying a democracy from within can be done by keeping all the fundamentals of democracy intact. This has been done in Venezuela, where the democracy is now in shambles and turned into an authoritarian controlled nation. This happened slowly, but surely, and no one had a clue. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018), democracies that die from elected leaders on the inside is “because there is no single moment—no coup, no declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously crosses the line into dictatorship, nothing sets off society’s alarm bells” (p. 6). Thankfully, there are a few warning signs that Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) provide for us to look out for when it comes to our leaders, which include weak commitment to democracy, downplay of political opponents, encouraging or tolerating violence, and attempts to curtail civil liberties (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018, p. 23-24). It is these warning signs that I would teach because we should all have a common understanding of how our democracy is doing and if it is indeed in danger. If we, as Team U.S.A., can recognize when a leader is stepping out of line, then we can work together and do something about it. It is important to prepare my students for continued life in a democracy, not in authoritarian rule. To be effective contributors to democratic society, students know to be kind and work together because that is how American democracy started in the first place. By being able to recognize the warning signs, students can take the necessary steps in order to save democracy. Learning about the alternatives to democracy should also raise student awareness in the importance of protecting the dream that makes Team U.S.A. possible.
All my beliefs stem from experiences in my life and throughout my schooling. I have faith that my teachers and mentors had my best interests in mind as they guided me. The future of America is shrouded in a cloud of the unknown. However, I trust that myself and other future educators will do their part to encourage democracy and active participation with Team U.S.A. A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and it takes a contribution from everyone for the group to run at its highest potential. My goal as an educator is to teach my students that America matters and that everyone that is a part of it matters. I am worried about our future now, but I have the power to change the future by instructing citizens how to be democratic citizens. With the American Creed as our uniting principle, and knowledge about where we have been and where we are going, the American team will rebound, and I will be able to say that I made a difference for Team U.S.A.
Ball, S. (2018) American Creed. United States: Public Broadcasting System (PBS)
Beane, J., & Apple, M. (2007). The case for democratic schools. In Michael Apple and James Beane (eds.), Democratic education: Lesson in powerful education, 2nd ed. (pp. 1-12). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die. New York: Crown Publishers.
Oakes, J. & Lipton, M. (2006). Teaching to change the world. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: McGraw- Hill. Pp. 105-109 only, from chapter 4.