Enduring Questions Across American History

Image: Euracert

Peter Pappas has a great post on his Copy/Paste blog identifying 12 essential questions/debates for teaching different periods/episodes in American history.  His list includes:


  • How Should Society Balance the Need for Tolerance with the Need to Protect Itself?
  • How Powerful Should the National Government Be?
  • Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?
  • Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?
  • How Should Americans Treat the Land?
  • Has Industrialization Produced More Benefits or More Problems for the Nation?
  • Should the United States Pursue a Foreign Policy of Isolationism or Interventionism?
  • What Should the Nation’s Immigration Policy Be?
  • To What Extent Is the Federal Government Responsible for the Welfare and Security of the Individual?
  • Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified as a Method of Political Change?
  • What Are the Limits of a Free Press?
  • How Much Should the Nation Invest in Defense?

Clearly, powerful, enduring questions help students learn.  What I’ve been wondering about is key questions that might be asked about episodes that occur across American history – that address episodes typically taught in the elementary (Contact through the Revolution), middle (New Nation through Reconstruction, and high school (Reconstruction to the Recent Past.)  It seems to me, for example, that:

  • A question like How should society balance the need for tolerance with the need to protect itself? could guide a study of the Salem Witch Trials, the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the Red Scare.
  • How should Americans treat the land? could draw attention to early contact, Westward Expansion, and 20th Century conservation issues (the Muir/Pinchot debate, for example, or the Endangered Species Act, or dams.)
  • How powerful should national government be? could look at Federalist/Anti-Federalist debates, Dred Scott and the Fugitive Slave Acts, and the New Deal and the modern Conservative movement.

What questions can you see being asked across the survey?  I think this would be a promising approach for a future Teaching American History grant – if the competition is offered again.


4 responses to “Enduring Questions Across American History

  1. Hi Matt,

    I appreciate your comments about my blog post and my Great Debates feature. I thought I’d provide some backstory.

    When Prentice-Hall first pitched the project, they asked me to create one debate for each unit of Daniel Boorstin’s A History of the United States. They suggested topics like “Should the Constitution be ratified?” I argued for more enduring questions that were still relevant. They liked the idea.

    I knew that I wanted to cover major themes like race, gender, class, rights, war, environment, etc. So I then set about the task of deciding what era could best exemplify the theme. For example do you ask the gender question in the context of the early right’s movement 1840’s, the push for suffrage at the turn of the 20th century, or the modern rights movement? Of course I only had 12 units to work in and each had a defined time span. Some eras had many possible themes competing for space. Add to that, I needed original source material that would fit the page specs and reading level. Needless to say, it was a busy 12 week project.

    I think some of the essential questions worked better than others – one I still don’t like is “Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?” Obvious answer – yes!!

    I agree that the “essential question” approach would work great for a TAH grant or many other history classes – American or global.

  2. Excellent post!

    I agree with where you and Peter are headed, that preferable to old-school style “coverage” is an “understanding”-based approach that focuses on essential questions. This allows the students to make their own meaning, and find relevance and enduring learning. Good stuff!

    I’d suggest that it would be beneficial to teach these questions backward. Here’s an example. For your question “How should society balance the need for tolerance with the need to protect itself?” a class could begin with an examination of the policies enacted since 9/11/01. Students will be familiar with TSA check-points at airports, etc. and can see how this question matters. Move them from this to the Patriot Act, then to Cold War, Red Scare, etc. Doing this with documents and selected readings, allows students to see the enduring importance of the question and the relevance it has to their lives. Eventually, they will see causality and patterns, and will comprehend an important theme in American History.

    This history backward approach can work for all of Peter’s suggested questions, and your additional three. What do you think?

    Mike Gwaltney

  3. Hi Peter and Mike –
    Thanks so much for adding your insightful comments to the post. I think we’re all agreed that an approach that forms around enduring questions is the way to go. Peter did a great service to the Boorstin project by identifying the core questions related to the study of individual periods that are likely to be useful in other contexts as well.
    Beyond a deep connection to the single historical period under study, great questions are applicable to multiple problems (including ones the students are likely to face) and should be reasonably answered in contrary ways. Under the final criteria, Peter’s right: “Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?” should probably be discarded – but “Who should have the right to vote?” or “Who should receive the full benefits of citizenship?” might work…
    What I’m seeking to identify is a set of fundamental questions that cut to the core of episodes that are studied in each century of American history. If similar questions are asked of students when they’re engaged in historical inquiry at 10, 13, and 17, they’ll likely be more able to draw on multiple episodes in developing their answer to that enduring question. These questions probably involve central tensions of individual rights & the common good, liberty & security, tradition & change, rights & responsibilities…
    Whose got them?

  4. Hi Matt –

    Here is a link and list that focuses on history, both teaching and learning. The link is for Fineman’s book. http://openlibrary.org/books/OL18504141M/The_thirteen_American_arguments

    Questions to consider:
    Why study history?

    Is our knowledge of the past ever completely certain?

    How far does the study of history widen our knowledge of human nature?

    Can history help us understand the present or predict the future?

    Does the historian record history, or create it?

    To what extent should emotion play a role in a historian’s analysis? What are the implications for the possibility or desirability of historical objectivity?

    How much is it possible for accounts of the same historical event to differ? Where these accounts differ, whose history do we study?

    How does the historian’s frame of reference affect selection of evidence, description, interpretation or analysis of events?

    Language and cultures change over time. What sort of problems might this pose for the study of history?

    Since history and human sciences both use reason and perception as ways of knowing, to what extent is history a human science?

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