The Meaning of America is a free course that doesn’t fit well into just one category. It’s an American literature course that uses short stories, documents, speeches, and excerpts from books, but the overarching goal of the course is civic education. As the authors state in the introduction to the course: "Our ultimate goal, stated without apology, is to produce better patriots and better citizens: men and women knowingly and thoughtfully attached to our country, devoted to its ideals, and eager to live an active civic life."
The authors aim to accomplish this by taking a literary approach using eight short stories and excerpts from two books as the starting points for each of ten lessons. They expand the discussion of topics within the lessons by adding speeches, historic documents, and poems.
The lessons are arranged into four parts under the headings, “National Identity and Why It Matters,” “The American Character,” “The Virtues of Civic Life,” and “Making One out of Many.” Within each of these four parts, the lessons focus more narrowly on themes such as Freedom and Individuality, Equality, Enterprise and Commerce, Freedom and Religion, and Compassion Toward Neighbors. The course is clearly designed to promote patriotism, but it is non-partisan in its approach.
The lessons are complex, and each of them will take a number of sessions to complete. The lessons begin with a short story that includes a brief introduction that mentions themes and poses questions that encourage students to pay attention to key ideas. For instance, the story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. begins with this introduction:
Central to the American creed is the principle of equality, beginning with the notion that all human beings possess certain fundamental rights and equal standing before the law. Our concern for equality has expanded over the past half century to focus also on inequalities in opportunities, wealth, achievement, and social condition. What good is an equal right to pursue happiness if one lacks the native gifts or the social means to exercise it successfully? In this satirical story (1961), set in a future time in which “everybody was finally equal . . . every which way,” Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922–2007) challenges our devotion to equality and invites us to consider the costs of pursuing it too zealously.
Following this introduction are a number of questions for students to ponder as they read. Among those for “Harrison Bergeron” are these two:
Does the society portrayed here represent a fulfillment of the ideal of equality in the Declaration of Independence, or rather a perversion of the principle? Does opposing invidious distinctions, envy, and feelings of inferiority require reducing all to the lowest common denominator, and is this the true path to “social justice”?
Most lessons have one or two additional documents or speeches to read that follow immediately after the story. For instance, following “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, students read the Declaration of Independence. Both of these readings are connected by their ideas about individual rights and individualism. Each of the supplementary readings has its own introduction and questions like those for the primary story.
Following the readings for a lesson is the discussion guide, presented in two parts: Thinking about the Text and Thinking with the Text. The first section is more tightly tied to events in the story, while the second section broadens the discussion to principles or big ideas. There are a great many questions posed in both sections, all designed to get students thinking about character, virtue, values, and philosophy rather than literary analysis. For instance, one question for the discussion of “Harrison Bergeron” asks, “Is it true that a society riven by inequality—based especially on the inequality of talents—cannot cultivate the virtues required for citizenship and cannot retain the attachment of all of its citizens?" (p. 81). These questions are best used for discussion, although you could assign some for short essays. Students are learning literary analysis skills throughout these lessons but not skills such as identifying figurative language or summarizing the plot.
The course authors insert occasional commentary, information, weblinks, and quotes from other sources as part of the discussion guide. For instance, there’s a reference to Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” within the first story, “A Man without a Country.” The course authors include a pertinent section of that poem within the discussion guide, asking students why and how it affected the main character.
I need to discuss the various options for accessing the course before discussing the final component. The course material is all available for free, although you can purchase a book with just the literary works under the title What So Proudly We Hail. But you don’t need to buy the book since all of the reading material is included in the free course material titled The Meaning of America. (All of the literary works are in the public domain.) The course material is available in two different formats: a downloadable PDF or an online course.
The 329-page PDF, which I will call the book, lays out the course so that students can work through it in order. The online course divides the material into sections that can also be used in sequence. There are a few differences in the location of some material, but they aren’t significant. I noticed one difference in the actual course content, although there might be others: The lesson in the book on “Harrison Bergeron” also has students read the Gettysburg Address, and it refers to the Declaration of Independence. The online course for that story does not include the Gettysburg Address.
The biggest difference between the book and the online course is the addition of video discussions for the online course, the final component. The video discussions feature the course authors, Amy and Leon Kass, talking with various experts about ideas presented in the course and the specific literary works. The book reprints brief excerpts from these conversations within the discussion guide sections, but the full conversations are available only online. The online course also includes pertinent excerpts from the video conversation at appropriate points within the lesson material, so students can watch only the excerpts or they can watch the entire conversation.
Another minor difference is worth noting. The online course includes some essay questions under the introduction section of each lesson, questions not included in the book. Having students write an essay in response to one of these questions for each lesson might serve well as your form of assessment.
The course content is great, but be aware that there are no answer keys. The questions are intended for discussion, so most of them don’t have predictable answers. But discussion requires at least one interlocutor who has also read the material. Parents might already be familiar with some of the readings, or they can read the material along with students to prepare for discussion. However, keeping up with the reading can become problematic for parents. Consequently, the course might work best for a group class that meets once or twice a week where a teacher can keep up with or is already familiar with the readings.
The Meaning of America should serve well as a course in American literature for high school students, and it should work especially well if used the same year as a government course. The civics education in this course provides a component that is seldom included in government courses.
However you use the course components, this is an outstanding course. It introduces students to an interesting collection from American literature while also addressing the pressing need for civic education that is thoughtful and based on enduring values.