Learning about “American” ideologies, values, and identities in public schools

Learning “American” in schools: a fork in the road

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver









Being an American is a complex and multifaceted experience. Identifying and teaching what it means to be American becomes the difficulty of negotiating between what Americaness is at an ideological level and what it means in terms of people’s lived experiences. Schools play an integral role in shaping and framing many people’s understanding of what it means to be an American. Through the school’s curriculum, both its hidden and explicit one, schools present many with their most thorough examination of their (non)Americanness as an identity. Despite this critical role in the development of an American sensibility, public education has largely been unable to provide students and communities with an adequate understanding of being American. Even though schools often serve as the site at which many cultural rituals are performed, they often do not provide context as to what the connection is between these acts and American identity. 

If schools are to help develop students as complete persons, it seems necessary that schools address how students should think of themselves in relation to the United States. However, schools have often proliferated notions of Americanism that systematically exclude mass segments of American society. Community members feel that schools have an opportunity to provide a better, more inclusive, and expansive definition of being an American while simultaneously equipping students with the knowledge necessary to navigate life within the United States. 

In order to properly understand the way American identity has been consolidated in a minority of experiences, it is important to detail the ways in which the historical narratives often promoted in institutions of public education have defined what it means to be an American. Many feel as though public education has served as a means to highlight and define American identity through the lens of a limited history—one that is largely grounded in White identity. This representation of American history often suggests itself as the most accurate account of the American experience but often reflects a sanitized version of history that whitewashes the plurality of American experience. American history is rife with examples of Americans understanding themselves as marginalized and subjugated both in the eyes of the state and the sociopolitical environment of the country. 

Schools are assigned the difficult task of reconciling abstractions about American identity, which suggests the experience of the American is one of receiving equal opportunities and rights-based protections, and the experience of many community members and students of systemic oppression and exclusion from dominant American society. As one educator put it, “I’m not 100 percent sure that students feel a positive connection to being an American, particularly coming off the past presidency that we had and thinking about the demographic of students that I work with. Being an American right now is not a positive thing based on the climate that I’ve gathered with the students that I work with; being an American is, like, it brings up emotions of fear and uncertainty, which lends that conversation naturally to what it’s like living here as opposed to, how do I connect to me being an American?”

Despite the difficulty in providing a more complete, and possibly jarring, understanding of the American experience, community members and students suggest this is something that public education must take on. Being American is both empowering and fraught with complicated emotions, and giving students a full exploration of what being an American means will allow them to steer the future of the country in the way that they see fit. 

By proliferating a variety of accounts of what it means to be an American, schools are capable of producing generations of peoples that feel the possibility of being an American. Students, community members, and educators have highlighted the need for a reclamation of “Americanism” that accounts for the multiple lenses through which the American experience is perceived. With a more full understanding of what it means to be American, schools can teach students how to understand themselves as individuals with identities that are not fundamentally antagonistic to being an American. Community members want public educational institutions to teach an understanding of America that is not afraid to account for the ambiguity of the American experience and its historically exclusive status. In order to properly situate themselves in their American identity, students need to be taught a more complete and representative understanding of what it means to be American.

Being Taught True History

Many students walk away from their experiences in public education feeling as though they have an incomplete understanding of American history. Schools often frame history in a way that allows for the United States to seem like an infallible entity that has experienced a linear, positive progression. It seems as though the American past is neither deeply explored, nor explicitly connected to the American present. Community members, educators, and students feel that it would be more beneficial to their understanding of being an American to be taught a more complex and complete account of the failings and missteps in the American past in order to understand the problems of contemporary America. Tension exists in public educational systems between exploring American history and developing a positive sense of American identity in the minds of students. 

A more complex discussion of American history is often designated as more appropriate for older students, particularly those pursuing higher education. However, many community members felt that that conversation was relevant for students at every level of their education. As one youth leader stated, “Well, they’re young, but when is the appropriate time to start teaching the truth?” They suggested that in many cases people have to go on to learn actual American history from colleges or organized learning circles that provide the education that was not afforded them in public schools. Essentially, a complete understanding of American history depends upon the economic ability to pursue an education that is not always accessible publicly. One educator put it this way: “I don’t want that to be the experience for students now, to have to pay to go relearn history or to relearn social studies.” In her own K-12 experience, she didn’t encounter non mainstream American history until she attended a Chicana-focused Saturday school.

Many felt that a more complete telling of the history of the United States would allow citizens to better understand the root causes of social problems that still plague the country today. As one student put it, “I feel like the reason history is so hard to teach is because the curriculum makes you think that a lot of our history was just in the past, like it was only back then, like it did not continue … there’s an important aspect of realizing the continuities of things that happened in history that still happen now.” Their goal was not to detach American identity from America’s shortcomings, but rather to understand that whatever it means to be an American is deeply associated with America’s past. Another student similarly suggested, “we have to teach all the history, the good and the bad; because you can’t really define ‘American’ without knowing the history inside and out.”

Without a full exploration of American history, one experiences difficulties in approaching contemporary problems with thoughtful solutions. As one educator stated, “Students need to learn the truth. They need to learn what America’s history is and what America is founded upon. That gives a lot of insight into how and why systems exist the way they do. Obviously, racism didn’t just appear out of nowhere. This is the foundation of our country, and that’s not taught.” He believes that if students are made aware that America’s overarching cultural foundation is oppressive, they can make better assessments of what it would take to overcome the obstacles created by the negative aspects of America’s past. Simply ignoring troublesome details in America’s history is not possible if we want students to believe their educational systems have integrity. As one long-time activist noted, “What we’ve learned, if we haven’t learned anything else in this last year, is that not talking about a thing will never make that thing not true, and at some point we’ve got to deal with the sore. We’ve dealt with symptoms but we’ve yet to deal with the sore.”

People with intimate knowledge of the constraints of public education noted that teachers may have an interest in teaching a more complete American history but often teach the standard curriculum due to performance evaluations and other requirements. One community member framed it this way: “Do teachers have the flexibility and opportunity to teach the truth, or are they confined to being evaluated and meeting certain expectations and meeting certain standards?” She feels bad for her teacher friends because many of them have expertise in things like critical race theory but are confined to teaching things like the Civil War and World War II from a “White nationalist lens.

Being American Should Be Taught as an Ideal

Even though it is necessary to understand American history through an actual series of events, many said it is equally useful to understand the more abstract definitions of what it means to be an American. Ironically, many of these definitions are grounded in a Constitution that was written with a necessarily very limited understanding of what it meant to be an American. As one community member said, “one of the biggest difficulties I think we have as Americans is that we reference a Constitution that was never written with all those of us who are in America in mind.”

However, America’s founding principles, at least many of them, seem to be ideas worth exploring in relation to teaching students about what it means to be an American. As one student noted, in many ways, to be an American is to be a part of a system of government that was supposed to radically free and empower its citizens. He has found it useful to be taught this country’s ideological commitments because it gives students an opportunity to understand what being an American could mean and how the country could function. As one student noted, he thought schools should go about “finding a message that we can follow that not only reflects on what we’ve done but what America as a whole can be in the future.”

The United States hosts a diverse population, and many felt that public education institutions should teach the concept that appreciating such diversity is a fundamental commitment of the country. In many ways, community members suggested that to be an American is to believe that a heterogeneous cultural environment, despite its difficulties, is not a hindrance but rather an ideal condition. One community member noted, “As Americans, we teach that we are a gumbo pot, we come with a whole lot of baggage, and we need to recognize that we need to be patient with some of us more than others sometimes. We need to be mindful of the fact that trauma is real, and it has been imposed by others that call themselves Americans.” 

Teaching students to appreciate this plurality is key because the concept of being American is often gate-kept in a way that suggests only a select few understandings of American identity are true reflections of being American. Instead of focusing on the ideological principles which produce American values, “being an American” can be reduced to “being born in the United States and White.” Such an understanding of American identity ignores the historical position of the United States as a potential home for people born anywhere in the world. As one person noted, it is also important to recognize that all Americans did not arrive in the nation by choice:  colonization and the Atlantic slave trade played a major role in who ended up in the United States.One community member put it this way: “We should teach that in this place where the immigrant has historically been embraced, that did not always include the ones who came without option, made to be enslaved.”

One positive aspect of giving students an ideological understanding of being American is that it empowers them to take responsibility for shaping the future of the country. As one educator phrased it, understanding American history helps us understand “our roles as citizens within this American country. What happened in the past didn’t just stay in the past. It’s manifesting today, so as citizens within this American country, what can we do to support each other through these systems, either to change these systems or make new systems as a whole to make amends for the atrocious histories that a lot of people in our communities have endured.”

 If schools teach the history of the country and what it is supposed to be in theory, then people can use that information to restructure systems in ways that resolve the contradictions between what America claims to be in principle and how people actually experience America in practice. In regards to what it means to be an American, one community member noted, “There’s the theoretical definition of what that is, the dream piece if you will, and then there’s the reality. And perhaps to be a real American means to recognize the gap between the desired state—the promoted state—and the reality state.” Teaching an American value system can also help identify the shortcomings in dominant understandings of what it means to be an American. For instance, teachers may equip students to question America’s commitment to individualism in light of the ecological catastrophe that appears to be impending due to the individualist and capitalistic understandings of one’s relationship with the world. As one educator put it, “As the world and the environment is no longer able to sustain or support the ideology upon which the US is founded, I think it’s inevitable that the US is falling as a world power because we are being met with reality … The notion of individual success is not sustainable at this point.”

Being an American Should Be Taught as a Lived Experience

Teaching what it means to be an American at a purely ideological level is incomplete; it should also be taught as a lived and embodied experience. In teaching students about the various American lived experiences, schools can more aptly prepare students to navigate the contemporary United States. Addressing these complicated issues can also prevent lessons about what it means to be American from appearing disingenuous. As one student noted, “America is supposed to be this ridiculous beacon of hope that I feel like we project as having no flaws and that we’ve never done anything wrong, but, like, if you look back at the history of the US, there’s just so much that we’ve totally screwed up. … Is it valuable to teach the history of what we believe we are or, like, what [we] have done wrong?”

For many, the discrepancy between America’s theoretical treatment of its citizens and the lived experience of many of them significantly defines what it means to be American. As one community member noted, “Unfortunately, the American experience is to have felt oppression and marginalization at some point, and that’s because of White supremacy and the way that this idea of the United States was founded.”

Some suggested that the gap between what it means to be American in theory and what it means to be American in practice is so wide that it would be more pragmatic to teach students what it means to live in America. One educator noted that he believes education is about relevance, and teaching about what it means to be an American is not as pragmatic as teaching students what it means to live in America as themselves. Another educator pointed to the disparity between the treatment of the crack epidemic and the opioid epidemic as an example of how disparate the experience of being American can be. He described this as an apt depiction of what systemic racism looks like, noting it produces “different outcomes for the same choice.”

The way public education can overcome the difficulty in creating a holistic understanding of what it means to be American is to involve the community in the decision-making process about what should be taught. As one educational activist noted, “we need community voice to dismantle and rebuild what curriculum should [look] like.”

Utilizing community input may open doors to conversations about what it means to be an American who does not always fulfill the expectation of American exceptionalism. For instance, the experiences of many Americans do not reflect what America often purports as its values. To talk about what it means to be an American teacher necessitates students being taught what it means to be an American worker. Despite the pervasive lesson that being American means having the opportunity to thrive based upon merit and industriousness, many workers, including teachers, find themselves unable to provide for themselves without working multiple jobs. One community member suggested “that’s something we could teach, what does it mean to be an American teacher, then we would have to talk about poverty.”

Using a more expansive lens to teach what it means to be an American may prompt students to more critically analyze the reasons the country exists as it does. In that way, teaching what it means to be American fosters critical engagement and reflection of what it ought to mean to be an American. 

Being an American Is to Celebrate Diversity

Community members, educators, and students suggested that “America” should be taught as a pluralistic and diverse society. That means students must be taught what it means to be an American through a variety of lenses and lived experiences. As one woman put it, “As an educator myself, I think we need to highlight the American experience through all epistemological frameworks. We need to highlight the Black feminist experience and not just talk about White feminism, we need to talk about what it means to be minoritized and marginalized in the United States.”

Schools have often reflected White-centric notions of what it means to be American. For one student, one of the main purposes of education is to allow students to be taught in an atmosphere that reflects, and encourages, the diversity of the country that they may otherwise never encounter. As he put it, “If we’re teaching history in an environment that’s still not inclusive of different ideas and different cultures, what does that prove. … The whole purpose is to open up society to become more culturally diverse and not repeat the same mistakes that Americans have made in the past.”

Teaching what it means to be an American is complicated and cannot be reduced merely to teaching what it means to be a White American. Oftentimes “whiteness” has been treated as the standard against which all humanity is judged. As one educator acknowledged, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of whiteness and how it’s been compared to divinity and how it’s been used as this standard of humanity, and in the US we are constantly fighting this idea that we are less than.” 

One student, whose family is relatively new to America, had a tough time of seeing herself as American at all due to the dominant narrative that suggests American identity and whiteness are inextricably intertwined. “For the first ten years of my life all I wanted to be was White because I was never taught Asian history. … It was really hard for me to think I was American, so I always classified myself as Asian, not Asian American. I feel like the problem starts once we start excluding groups. And the second we start doing that, then we build this hierarchy of who can succeed and who is not important in this nation.” Another student noted that it is critical that American identity not be solely attached to a place of origin. As she put it, “Schools can focus on redefining American identity as people that have found freedom or the American dream or whatever they’re pursuing in America. That would be a uniquely historically American perspective because most countries see their national identity as being born and raised in their country. … Since America is a mishmash of so many cultures, I think American identity should be redefined in schools as a person that has come to America and identifies as American.”

One educator suggested the public education system can leverage the multiple identities that exist in American communities and in the classroom to create a more complete picture of what it means to be an American. As one educator noted, it is still a widespread practice in K-12 education to center discussions around White identity. 

Until our public school teachers become as diverse as our students, it is largely White people’s responsibility currently to teach what it means to have an American identity in a way that’s inclusive. One educator noted that sharing the responsibility of teaching this pluralistic understanding of being American will allow teachers of color to be supported in an effort that they have long been engaged in. As one community member put it, “Much of the labor needs to come from them because Black and brown educators have done this work for so many generations. … It should be Black, brown educators and Whites challenging the system.” She added that White teachers have more safety in terms of keeping their job as they push against White-centric teaching agendas. Another educator added, for too long teaching an American identity that is not rooted in White supremacist logic has been placed on the shoulders of non-White people. As they put it, “Racism is a White problem created by White people that needs to be solved by White people.”

Students often find it difficult to understand American identity as being diverse and inclusive when the schools they attend skew so far away from a representative reflection of American society. As one student put it, “It’s hard to learn about how impactful racism was and how slavery still impacts the country in a classroom where you feel like the culture is not inclusive. … It’s pointless to learn the good and bad of history if our schools don’t have a culture that’s actively trying to change and get better.” She suggested using land acknowledgment statements and creating room for open discussion as opportunities for schools to teach an American identity that is inclusive of multiple experiences. For one student, a more diverse public educational environment would expand her readily identifiable embodiments of what it means to be an American. One student expressed that sentiment this way: “I really wish that school systems and all of that would try to make it so that there would be more teachers of color in school so that students of color have people to sympathize with and people to see as American, because if you see all your teachers are White, then you’re going to think that’s the standard for maybe what an American should be or maybe what a teacher should be.” Diversity among those public educational institutions can also allow students to feel as though they are actually being taught what it means, or rather what it can mean, to be an American.

Being American Should Include Being Taught What It Means to Be a Citizen of the World

Given the increasingly global and integrated nature of society, community members, educators, and students felt that an important part of being an American is being taught to be an American citizen in a global community. Not only can schools help expand understanding of what it means to be American domestically, but they can also help people understand what it means to be American from an outside perspective.  One community member noted that when she is abroad, local people associate her Americanness with student loans, police violence, and an intensely divisive racial climate.

In conjunction with teaching a more robust version of America’s history, teachers should help students understand the strong connotations of American identity in relation to other nations around the world. As one educator noted about his observations about being an American abroad, “there’s an immense amount of privilege and protection we receive out in the world, and I think it would be important to teach students about what the US government has done to other countries to establish this reputation as a capitalist warring empire.”

As schools interrogate what they teach about what it means to be American, they must do so by understanding that American exceptionalism may no longer be a meaningful baseline.  After detailing the turbulence the country had experienced over the past year, one community member said, “America for the first time in maybe its history was no longer seen as this world power and this country that others wanted to aspire to be.”