American culture is laced with our democratic heritage. We learn about democracy, in our homes and from our earliest days in school. Soon after we learn to walk, we begin to learn that the majority does and should rule in thousands of little decisions from what the family has for dinner to whether or not a class goes out for recess on a cold day. We are taught that this is a just and fair way of making decisions. As adults, we participate in polls and surveys that take our opinion on topics as varied as our preferences on television and our agreement with an idea.
The primacy of democracy in our culture belies our history. Growing up in a culture of democracy can lead students to believe the legend of America; that it was born from a democratic heritage and has fostered democracy ever since. As is always the case in history, the reality is far more complicated than the legend. It is against this backdrop that teaching American government can get very tricky. This can make it very difficult to help students move from their understanding of the legend to the reality.
At the same time, this legend has a great deal of educational value in itself. Our students bring to our classes a wealth of understanding about the function of democracy in our society. They are in fact experts on the subject of democracy. What they lack is an understanding of the theory that underlies our government as a distinct system separate from the academic definitions of democracy. Furthermore, while they have internalized the sovereignty of the people they have done so largely without realizing the uniqueness and relative youth of this bedrock of modern government. Thus while it is useful to explore their current understanding of democracy in America, and the history of that idea, it is also necessary to study the ideas that preceded the American Constitution.
In this unit, I intend to both approach the legend of American democracy and use it to critically evaluate their understanding. I will present a concise perspective on the history and culture of democracy in the United States. In this way the students will have the tools in hand to begin to understand the roots of their perspectives on democracy. The ultimate goal of this unit is to give the students a much deeper understanding of the idea of democracy in America.
This unit will focus on two essential questions “What is democracy?” and “Is America a democracy?” Answering these questions will require us to look at the various foundational documents in American history, as well as various depictions of American government and politics. Additionally, we will look at various moments in American history when that democracy was expanded or extended to cover a greater portion of the population. This study will allow us to fully discuss the essential question, answering further questions like: is democracy a cultural ideal as well as a governmental system? If we are a democracy, when did we become one? And if we are not, what stands in our way? Furthermore, is democracy something we should aspire to as a nation at all? Or is it merely a term we apply to our existing system, regardless of its truth? Each of these questions not only requires a strong understanding of the history and culture underlying American democracy, but also allows for the demonstration of that understanding.
In order to fully answer our essential questions, the unit will be broken into three phases, designed to answer three separate questions all leading up to the end of the unit. We will begin by asking the simple questions “what is democracy?” and “what is government?” The second phase will be based around the questions “how does our government work and why does it work that way?” The final phase of the unit will rely on depictions of American democracy and ask “what does it take to be a democracy?” and “is it something to aspire to?” In this way we will build toward a deeper understanding of democracy, government and America.