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Does Anybody See What I See?

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Here in Fredericksburg, the home town of George Washington, and 50 miles from the nation’s capital, the Fourth of July is a big deal. There is a parade, a wonderful wacky raft race featuring almost anything that floats, a street fair with vendors and a stage for local talent. The day ends, of course, with fireworks bursting in the air above the park along the river. It is a Norman Rockwell Fourth of July — the way we like our history.

But the Fourth of July isn’t over for me until I have watched 1776. It just isn’t the Fourth until I sing our nation into existence along with Tom, Ben, Abigail, and John. I know all the songs and most of the lines by heart. Each year I have to remind myself that the Continental Congress didn’t really sing and dance their way to the Declaration. Critics may have found the movie trite and historians may be horrified by a musical taking dramatic license with some characters and events. But it strikes me that, when it comes to historical accuracy, Sherman Edwards’ song and dance of the Founding Fathers may not be much different than the highly edited photo-op sound bite version of current events we get on the evening news.

I know that 1776 is quasi-history, but if we are completely honest, is there is really any other kind of history? We weren’t there. History is someone else’s best guess based on interpretation of incomplete evidence and less than objective witnesses. The best we can do is take their story of who, where and when, try to verify information we have, and ferret out what is missing. We discern what, how and why by considering multiple interpretations of facts, looking for consistencies or conflicts, and forming our own opinions.

Thirty-five years after its release, some school systems are still fribbling over whether middle school civic students should be allowed to see 1776. Sexual innuendo and inappropriate language, rather than historical accuracy, seems to be the concern. I hope some teachers will practice a little civil disobedience and continue to treat their students to two hours of this engaging and uplifting piece of history as entertainment.

Our children face enormous challenges against great odds in a very cynical world. There is little doubt that we will leave them with large and serious economic, environmental, social, and international problems. Moving our nation forward is likely to require some audacious new ideas, a great deal of compromise, and considerable sacrifice. Perhaps they might find courage in a version of history where less than perfect people engage in what was sometimes less than noble behavior to arrive at a less than pure policy that still transcends itself and its makers.

Maybe those haunting lines, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?” were theatrical inventions of self doubt created for dramatic effect, but within a few hours of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence the real John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail:

I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is worth more than the means.

The movie ends with the signing, but the story doesn’t. There was indeed a great deal of gloom and frustration and difficulty ahead. Jefferson and Adams, partners in conception, often found themselves at odds on how to rear an infant nation. But until the shared day of their death on July 4, 1826, fifty years after the signing of the Declaration, there was one common belief on which they never differed:
The objects of... primary education [which] determine its character and limits [are]: To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; to enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts in writing; to improve, by reading, his morals and faculties; to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; to know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains, to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgment; and in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.--Thomas Jefferson: Report for University of Virginia, 1818.

because
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who
does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but
besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right
to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and
conduct of their rulers.
John Adams, The Boston Gazette, 1765

If we are to honor our history, we need to prepare the next generation to think creatively as well as efficiently, to value cooperation as much as correctness, and to question as effectively as they recall. So, on the Fourth of July of an election year on behalf of America's teachers, I'm asking along with Adams —

Does anybody see what I see?



6 Comments

This is one of my all time favorite movies. My American historian, college professor husband is not as big a fan, but doesn't think it is awful history. There are so many movies that are less true to history than this one. His biggest issue (other than the random singing which he just finds silly) is certain quotes that are taken out of context, giving them drastically different meaning. Especially things Thomas Jefferson says about slavery making him seem more anti-slavery than he truly was.

I teach in the school district you reference. We used to show the kids 1776 in our 4th grade classes because it was such a powerful way to get them thinking about that period in history. We were very frustrated when that decision came down. I no longer teach 4th grade so I don't have to think about it, but I still find it frustrating.

Thank you for this piece. Even though Jeffersonian and Adams' American was a profile that did not identify the diverse America we see today, It seems that they were visionary enough make the wording flexible enough for future generations to broadly interpret. I try not to be so skeptical, but can't help to think that the very decisions that affect our children and our country are being made by a misguided (not to go so far as to say calculating) ruling, elite network of folks inside and outside of our federal and state government that do not place a high value on Maria, Murali, Kiesha, or Paowit as well as Dick and Jane in our 21st century classrooms.

My name is Richard Henry Lee; Virginia is my home
My name is Richard Henry Lee; Virginia is my home
And my horses turn to glue if I can't deliver
Unto you a resolution on independency!

For I am FFV, the first family
In the sovereign colony of Virginia
Yes I am FFV, the oldest family
in the oldest colony in America
And may the British burn my land if I can't deliver
To your hand a resolution on independency!

You see it's here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
And everywhere-a-Lee-a-Lee

Social-Lee, political-Lee, financial-Lee, natural-Lee
Internal-Lee, external-Lee, fraternal-Lee, eternal-Lee

The FFV, the first family
In the sovereign colony of Virginia
And may my wife refuse my bed if I can't deliver
As I said a resolution on independency

They say that God in heaven is everybody's God
I'll admit that God in heaven is everybody's God
But I tell you, John, with pride, God leans
A little on the side of the Lees, the Lees of old Virgina!

You see it's here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
And everywhere-a-Lee-a-Lee
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
And everywhere-a-Lee

Look out! There's Arthur Lee, Bobby Lee
And General Lighthorse Harry Lee
Willy Lee, Jesse Lee

Franklin:
And Richard H.!

Lee:
That's me!
And may my blood stop running blue if I can't deliver
Unto you a resolution on independency!

Yes sir, by God, it's here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee
Come on boys join in with me!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!

Franklin:
When do you leave?

Lee:
Immediate-Lee!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!

Franklin:
When will you return?

Lee:
Short-Lee!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!
And I'll come back triumphant-Lee!
Here-a-Lee, there-a-Lee!
Everywhere a-Lee-a-Lee

Forward ho!

Dead White Guy History

I haven't seen 1776, but if it gets students intrigued about what MIGHT have happened. The teacher could use it to springboard discussion, or other creative writing. As yet,Social Studies is not tested in PA, where I teach, so using a movie or documentary could provoke lively discussion. We might even be able to get the students to think critically about something. With the exception of the musical additions,the movie probably isn't all that much off-base than the biased textbooks from which the research was derived.

"we need to prepare the next generation to think creatively as well as efficiently, to value cooperation as much as correctness, and to question as effectively as they recall"

I think what you've said here is so important. I'm always hearing how we're asked to educate kids for the future, but we don't know what the future will be.

I may not know what the future will be, but I'm certain that critical thinking skills, excellent problem solving skills and excellent people skills will be needed no matter what the future brings. Those will always be important skills.

I teach English 11 in Arkansas...and am currently organizing a thematic/multigenre unit entitled "A Pioneer Never Quits" (also our school motto!)and would like permission to use this blog post during this unit as a possible intro to this movie (might just show excerpts).

I agree this would be a great springboard for discussion and as a basis for a writing prompt.

I have also just ordered the book 1776...to hopefully also at least do a book talk on during this unit.

I had the opportunity to visit Baltimore, Washington, and Virginia this summer with three students who were competing at National History Day. At times, I was humbled, then motivated, then humbled...by all the sites and history that abounds there. A part of every student's education in this country should be to tour and absorb what has been given by so many that we have all the liberties and opportunities that, unfortunately, we often take for granted.

Thanks!

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