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An America Curriculum?

by Catherine Cornbleth - 1998

Public schooling in the United States serves the purposes of Americanization and assimilation. Group and national identities are continually refashioned, however, and in the late 1990s, it is much less clear what students are being socialized or assimilated to than it was twenty or forty or eighty years ago. The resurgence of policy activity and controversy regarding American pluralism-diversity-multiculturalism has raised questions about what vision or version of the nation is to be transmitted to future generations via school curricula.

The focus of the study presented here is the images of America actually being conveyed in elementary, middle, and high school social studies classes. The absence of a single, predominant image of America in these classes can be understood as reflecting the complex realities of United States history and contemporary society. Closest to a dominant theme was “imperfect but best”—America as the best country in the world, despite past problems, current difficulties, and various complaints. Alternative interpretations were offered, all pointing to disruption of the traditional story of America, a disruption that challenges not only the conventional wisdom but also the privileged positions of those individuals and groups who have benefited from dominant ideologies and prevailing distributions of power.

Public schooling in the United States serves the purposes of Americanization and assimilation. Group and national identities are continually refashioned, however, and in the late 1990s, it is much less clear what students are being socialized or assimilated to than it was twenty or forty or eighty years ago. The resurgence of policy activity and controversy regarding American pluralism-diversity-multiculturalism has raised questions about what vision or version of the nation is to be transmitted to future generations via school curricula.

The focus of the study presented here is the images of America actually being conveyed in elementary, middle, and high school social studies classes. The absence of a single, predominant image of America in these classes can be understood as reflecting the complex realities of United States history and contemporary society. Closest to a dominant theme was “imperfect but best”¾America as the best country in the world, despite past problems, current difficulties, and various complaints. Alternative interpretations were offered, all pointing to disruption of the traditional story of America, a disruption that challenges not only the conventional wisdom but also the privileged positions of those individuals and groups who have benefited from dominant ideologies and prevailing distributions of power.

It is well established that public schooling has served the purposes of Americanization and assimilation, of nation-building and other national purposes, as well as individual ones. In so doing, schooling has furthered the interests of economically, politically, and/or culturally dominant groups, such as successful entrepreneurs and various experts (e.g., Collins, 1977; Olneck, 1989, 1990; Tyack, 1995; Tyack & James, 1985). Group and national identities are continually refashioned, however, and at the end of the 1990s, it is much less clear what students are being socialized or assimilated to than it was twenty or forty or eighty years ago. What, for example, has replaced the world of Dick and Jane, Spot and Puff, conveyed by primary grade reading books of decades past? This is no longer the America of Ozzie and Harriet, or of Sanford and Son, or of Fonzi. America does not sit still.

Textbook portrayals has changed by the 1970s, according to Spring’s (1992) analysis, “from a happy little white community to a multiracial city” (p. 229) in a hard-working society with racially integrated workplaces and contented employees (cf. Fitzgerald, 1979). We know little, however, of what images of America and Americans are being offered via school and classroom practice today and even less about how they are being interpreted by students.

I use “America” rather than the more specific United States of America when referring to questions of United States national identity and (re-)definition because, unfortunately, the terms of the continuing “America debate” (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995) already have been set by critics and opponents of more-than-modest multiculturalism who have cast the issues in the language of “American” and “un-American.” It also is less awkward to ask what it means to be an American than, for example, a USAean. This is also true for “American” as an adjective as in “American” character. The United States is, as an academic colleague born in Mexico remarked, the only nation in North or South America without a name of its own.

The resurgence of policy activity and controversy regarding United States pluralism-diversity-multiculturalism has reopened questions about what it means to be an American in the 1990s and what vision or version of America is to be transmitted to future generations via popular culture and school curricula (Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995). The “what” of America and Americanism to which newcomers and old-timers alike are to be (re-)socialized is in dispute.

This article and the research project from which it stems grew out of my interest in these historical, cultural, and educational issues. The last large-scale, systematic study of social studies classes that attended to what national history actually was taught—the National Science Foundation (NSF) case studies of the mid-1970s (Stake & Easley, 1978)—indicated that most social studies teachers continued to rely on textbooks; teach a presumably factual political history of presidents, acts, and wars (i.e., “‘important truths’ about our history and government”); and avoid controversy while attempting to inculcate American democratic values in the abstract (Shaver, Davis, & Helburn, 1979, p. 151). More recent reviews (e.g., Gehrke, Knapp, & Sirotnik, 1992; Thornton, 1994) provide a similar picture. Calls for one or another change in social studies education since the 1920s do not appear to have been widely heeded.

In this context, the conservative critique of too much multiculturalism and negativism about America appears ill-founded. Puzzled and curious, I was moved to examine the images of America actually being conveyed, particularly with respect to multiculturalism, in ordinary social studies classes in urban and suburban public schools. The specific questions addressed in this article are:

1. What images of America are being conveyed via curriculum practice in social studies classes?

2. What appears to be influencing the provision of certain America messages rather than others?

The first question assumes that school experience offers a range of images or messages about America and Americans. It targets the messages broadcast by teachers, and occasionally by students, and by the use of textbooks and other instructional materials actually used by teachers and students. The second question taps both the reasons teachers give for their practice, including their own stated views of America, the images they report conveying, and apparent causes observed by the researchers that may not be directly acknowledged by teachers (e.g., state policies, the continuing “America debate”).

The approach taken here turns the more common question about treatment of a single group, event, or era on its head. Instead of examining any one in isolation, I look to the larger picture and try to consider what is taught relationally—in relation to what else is being taught (and how it is taught) and to what encompassing image, process, or framework may be offered (e.g., the great democratic experiment, technological development). In this way the forest that is America is neither forsaken for its individual trees or various groves nor is it taken for granted. The meaning, or possible meanings, of a three-day study of “the Plains Indians,” for example, depends in part on its context—on how it compares with the treatment of other topics in a particular class and on how it forms part of a picture or story of America (cf. Mischler, 1979, on meaning in context).


My data source is a year-long field study of fifth-, seventh-, eighth-, and eleventh-grade social studies (United States history) classes in an urban and a suburban district in the northeastern United States. Five of the eleven classes are in a magnet school with a “traditional” program serving grades five to twelve in the city. All the teachers are of European descent (one is part Native American) as are approximately 37 percent of the students at the school; 60 percent of the students are of African descent. In the affluent suburban district, the six teachers and classes are in three schools (one five-to-eight middle and two high schools). Five of these teachers are of European descent, as are more than 90 percent of the students in the school district; one of the teachers and three percent of the students in the district are of African descent. One of the four fifth-grade teachers is male, as are three of the four seventh- and eighth-grade teachers and two of the three eleventh-grade teachers.

Pseudonyms consistent with each teacher’s gender are used to protect anonymity: Lindsey, Peter, and Stan are eleventh-grade teachers; Bryce, Rob, Lola, and Fred are seventh- or eighth-grade teachers; Don, Donna, Lilly, and Betty are fifth-grade teachers. Other descriptors, such as city-suburban location, years of teaching experience, and racial-ethnic descent, were not consistently related to the images of America conveyed in these teachers’ classes.1

Following an extensive background interview, including questions about multicultural conceptions and practices, at least one of each teacher’s classes was observed at least four times, usually in two, two to three-day segments. An attempt was made to schedule observations at the beginning of a topic or unit, in order to see how teachers introduced a topic and then developed it. After each set of observations, a post-observation interview was conducted to probe teachers’ understanding of their practice, particularly their reasons for teaching what they did in the way they did it. A final interview probed teachers’ sense of the images of America conveyed in their classes during the school year just ending. Interviews were taped and transcribed. Observations were written up as descriptive narrative field notes with particular attention paid to the images of America conveyed. Copies of materials used during observed classes were obtained whenever possible.

Consistent with the norms of field study and ethnographic research (e.g., Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Erickson, 1986), data analysis has been inductive. I began by reading the field notes and then moving back and forth among the interview transcripts, the field notes, and the instructional materials observed in use to construct, test, and refine interpretive themes in response to the images of America question. Initial interpretations also were compared with those of other members of the research staff who had participated in data collection and were working with some of the same data for different purposes. Field note data figure prominently here, consistent with the focus on images actually conveyed, not merely planned or intended. Interview data provided cues and clues to the images conveyed, and to the reasons for conveying those images. The textbook and other materials used are noted only as they were referred to in the observed classroom interaction.2

Of particular interest has been how the various people who make up America are portrayed—how their histories and cultures, experiences and perspectives are represented in relation to one another and to a larger picture of America. Consistent with this interest, my focus has been on what was taught more than how it was taught. Subject matter and pedagogy, however, are not mutually exclusive. Portrayal of multiple perspectives, for example, is not conducive to tight teacher control of knowledge.

In the course of inductively analyzing the field note data for images of America, three levels of inference were distinguished. One is the lowest inference, close to or at the surface of observation, an image directly conveyed by the teacher, one or more students, a textbook or other instructional materials, an exam, or a loudspeaker message. For example, Lindsey asked students to think, write, and then talk about changes in values and traditions in their families and in American society—directly communicating an image of America in which such change occurs.

A second, higher-level inference is an underlying or implied image. For example, from Rob’s comments about “the golden age of sports” during the introduction to a unit on the “roaring twenties,” one might easily derive an image of 1920s’ America where leisure and gender differences are prominent. Or, from Peter’s class preparing for the end-of-year exam, one might well derive an image of America as meritocratic, where exams are important determinants of one’s future. Overall, higher-inference images were observed twice as often in the eleventh-grade classes compared to the seventh- and eighth-grade classes, which could be a function of the relative complexity of the former. Very few images of America were noted in the fifth-grade classes, two of which focused on physical geography, state by state, region by region, virtually devoid of people (except now-dead governors).

A third level of inference spanned observations of individual classes (within and across teachers) to identify commonalities, themes, or patterns. Whereas Lindsey’s classroom talk sometimes offers an image of Americans (at least the students in her class) as pretty much the same or in agreement, despite occasional differences, for example, Peter and his students jointly create an image of America with divergent ideas and multiple perspectives, past and present. Representative themes and patterns are emphasized here, drawing on the more explicit messages conveyed for illustration and support.


No single America, or predominant image of America, emerged from observation data in these elementary, middle, and high school social studies classes. Instead, multiple and often mixed messages were observed within and across classes. These messages frequently were brief snippets or fragments, like sound bites.

Despite adherence to chronological historical sequence, there was no obvious narrative thread providing a coherent story of America. Nor was there evidence of multiple, interwoven threads or stories of America. At most, students were offered partial images or vignettes. One could imagine these vignettes as pieces from several jigsaw puzzles that, taken together, do not fit or provide a coherent, recognizable picture. This may, of course, be an apt metaphor for American history and late-twentieth-century society.3

That the images of America conveyed in these classrooms were both multiple and partial is key to understanding the contemporary America curriculum. Students were offered numerous partial images or glimpses of some aspect of America but few more comprehensive images or bigger pictures, nor were students encouraged or assisted to create their own.4 Examples of such comprehensive images—images with a capital I— include Euro-immigrant America (i.e., we are all immigrants with experiences much like those of northern and western European immigrants, coming together to create and then contribute to America [Wynter, 1990]), and both secular and religious versions of America as exemplar of onward and upward progress (e.g., the great democratic experiment, the American Dream, the City on the Hill). While some of these interpretations were evident during our classroom observations, they were not employed as broad narrative frameworks.

Teachers’ use of comprehensive images of America, narrative frameworks, organizing principles, or what Gudmundsdottir (1990) calls “curriculum stories,” as a means of organizing curriculum knowledge and making sense of it appears to be more than a matter of teacher experience as Gudmundsdottir’s comparison of experienced and novice social studies teachers suggests. It also may be that some teachers consciously or otherwise organize curriculum knowledge in ways that are meaningful personally but do not share their organizing principals directly with students. It is more likely in the current instance—and further explored later in conjunction with teacher interview data—that the teachers’ perspectives are in the process of reformulation as they attempt to accommodate changing circumstances, including state policy discourse about social studies curriculum change and increasing diversity among the students in their classes (e.g., greater numbers of students whose first language is not English).

The multiple and often mixed messages about America observed in these classrooms on the one hand, and their fragmentation or compartmentalization on the other, appear to be mutually constitutive. Acknowledging different points of view—incorporating multiple perspectives—necessarily interrupts a single story line. Without a means of bringing these different perspectives or strands into, for example, a reciprocal or braided history (Cornbleth, 1996a; Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995), the result is an MTV-like montage of multiple, overlapping images in motion. Such fragmentation means that contradictions among multiple messages may not be noticed or may be allowed to coexist.

Fragmentation is also fostered by the organization and format of most textbooks. School texts typically divide history into units, chapters, sections, and subsections—interspersed with various graphics and special features—but rarely link the parts together in any meaningful way beyond simple chronology. Similarly, school and standardized tests rarely ask students to interrelate ideas, events, circumstances, and actions across time, place, or sector.

A last consideration, to which I will return later, is that the seeming disjointedness we have observed may be indicative of a potentially significant disruption in how most Americans have viewed the nation’s history and probable future. To disrupt is to disturb or interrupt the previously established or generally accepted, orderly course of action—in this case, telling the history of the United States of America. By means of acknowledging different points of view or multiple perspectives, but especially by means of critique, the American history classes we observed engaged in disruption.5

Both teachers and students voiced critiques of past and present actions and circumstances. Dissent, however, typically was neither sustained nor incorporated in ways that would substantially alter the image(s) of America conveyed. It was similar in this regard to individual instances of momentary resistance, in or out of school, that have little or no social or institutional impact. The data do not confirm the worst fears of ideological critics who are certain that schooling in general and social studies-history in particular are either uncritically celebrating a flawed America or dismantling a magnificent one.

Major themes or images of America conveyed in curriculum practice in the classes we observed are “America as imperfect but the best nation in the world” and “multiple America.” Each is examined and illustrated in the sections that follow.


America comes into focus in these classrooms in moments of critique, celebration, and crisis. Most of the time, however, things “just happen” with little or no sense of causation or connection (e.g., exploration of the “new world,” the War of 1812, government structure). Closest to a comprehensive image or an overarching theme was the recurring image of America as the best country in the world despite past problems, current difficulties, or one or another critique. In response to a fifth-grader’s story about how sometimes the government “rips you off,” Donna defended the United States government, saying:

So, what system is perfect? Do you know anything that is, besides me? [student laughter] It’s a government for the people and by the people. In some countries people are told what job they can have, where they can live . . . (6/8/95, p. 3).6

All three eleventh-grade teachers, on more than one occasion, and one eighth-grade teacher conveyed explicit images of America as changing and making progress, as solving problems or righting past wrongs. Rob, for instance, conveyed an image of early twentieth-century America (with a focus on the 1920s) where there was “social intolerance.” Though some problems remain, he informed his students, things are getting better. Examples of social intolerance mentioned in class, in a brisk review prior to the next day’s exam, included denying women suffrage and other rights, nativist attitudes against immigration, and KKK activities. Similarly, Stan conveyed an image of early twentieth century urban problems’ being resolved by Progressive Era reforms: “Political reform . . . improved democracy, less corruption” (2/23/95, p. 2, from transparency).

In both of these cases, there is a sense of inevitable movement; things just happen without explanation or reasons being offered. Problems exist and are resolved, more or less, but there is little or no hint of human suffering, agency, conflict, or struggle. They simply are not mentioned.

Conflict was evident in the discussion in Peter’s class about righting past wrongs by means of court cases regarding Native American land claims (some of which are in the local area; the class topic was the takeover of Plains Indians’ land by “white men” in the late nineteenth-century). Students were not in agreement as to whether people should have to forfeit property now because past treaties were broken. One suggested that what happened in the past (100 years ago) should not be an issue now. When Peter suggested a parallel with African-American experiences, another African-American female indicated that she was not ready to forget that past. Interestingly, although only two of the students and the teacher in this class of about thirty are “white men,” until Peter prodded the students, most seemed to identify or side with the “settlers,” as evidenced by their apparent acceptance of westward movement at Native American expense.

While the message of “righting past wrongs” or “things are getting better” was the mainstay of the theme of America as imperfect but the best nation in the world, two sub-themes merit separate mention. One is America’s underside” where the United States has acted in prejudicial (i.e., racist), selfish, or dishonorable ways—by current standards—but has not righted the wrongs; they are simply in the past, the implication being that “we don’t do that anymore.” The second sub-theme is of America as a “can do” nation admired and even sought after by others.

Illustrative of “America’s underside” was the image of an inconsistent America, divided over foreign policy, whose government does not always act honorably. This image emerged in the classes of three of the four seventh- and eighth-grade teachers, especially with respect to United States involvement in the Spanish American War and Vietnam. Rob, for example, described the United States government’s sending young men (himself included) off to a bad, wrong war in Vietnam. At the end of the class period, a student commented on the Bruce Springsteen song “Born in the USA,” playing over the closing credits of the video “Dear America”: “‘Kill a yellow man,’ it’s kind of racist.” Rob responded, “to some extent, it was a racist war” and abruptly changed the subject (6/6/95, p. 6).

Images of America as prejudiced against non-Europeans, or of America as an extension of Europe, were conveyed in three of the four seventh- and eighth-grade classes and the two fifth-grade classes that addressed United States history. (The segment on the Plains Indians in Peter’s class also might be included here.) Bryce, for example, presented “Manifest Destiny” and United States imperialism in the late nineteenth-century, especially the Spanish American War, as based in part on bigotry: “Bigotry is a motivator too. We used to think, ‘They are only brown-skinned people’” (2/6/95, p. 4). Two days later, in response to a student’s question, “Do we own the Philippines?” Bryce responded in a similarly sarcastic manner:

We thought, “Oh, those brown-skinned Filipinos can’t take care of themselves.” We kept possession [until] after World War II. They are now independent with thousands of different kinds of people. (2/8/95, p. 9)

In both instances, the teacher uses the past tense (“we used to think,” “we thought”), suggesting that “we” no longer hold such bigoted views. Unclear, however, was the message communicated by the teacher’s use of “we,” as if speaking for all Americans, since on at least two prior occasions during this three-day segment, he offered descriptions of Americans as divided, as arguing “both for and against foreign involvement” (2/6/95, p. 1, notes on chalkboard).7 Early on, he directed students to pages 506-507 in their textbook, Points of View, with cartoons and text in support of and in opposition to United States expansion.

At the end of this class, Bryce asked students to read part of page 59 in their “green books” about African-American roles in the Spanish American and other United States wars. The green book is a district-provided supplementary monograph with information about African and African-American contributions to United States history and culture. Neither the green book nor the interaction that followed provided much information beyond the teacher-solicited student comment that “nobody cared what the blacks did to help” and Bryce’s response, “It certainly seems that way” (2/7/95, p. 6). Although this class segment appeared tacked on at the end, an image of America where blacks and Native Americans (a teacher-provided example) were not recognized for the roles they played was clear. This three-day segment of an eighth-grade United States history class also clearly illustrates multiple, partial, and seemingly fragmented images of America, including a fair amount of fleeting critique.

Whereas Bryce (above) and Rob (in the previously cited instance of attention to social intolerance including nativist and other anti-immigrant activity in the 1920s) conveyed images of America as prejudiced against non-Europeans, three teachers conveyed their own biases or misunderstandings of the past as historical fact. Lola matter-of-factly presented America as a nation of European immigrants. Americans during the World War I period were “from” Europe, old immigrants from northern and western Europe, new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (2/24/95, p. 3). Native Americans, enslaved Africans, conquered Mexicans, and Asian immigrants were ignored. Similarly, Don presented a version of colonial life to his fifth-graders that reflected bourgeois English experience but was not identified as such. More dramatically, Donna presented to her fifth-graders an image of America settled by brave Europeans who overwhelmed the “scary Indians” (2/28/95, p. 3). Two days later, she introduced a story about Captain John Smith saying, “He was brave—he was not the type to shake in his boots at the sight of an Indian and run home” (3/2/95, p. 6).

America appeared as selfish in three classes, two eleventh- and one eighth-grade. Foreign policy decisions were portrayed as based on economic or material interests and looking out for oneself first. The Spanish American War in Bryce’s class featured a greedy, arrogant United States acting on its economic interests.

OK, listen. Is it all right to take something from someone without being caught? [Five students raise hands.] Who thinks it’s wrong? [eleven students] Is it wrong to push over your eighty-five-year-old grandmother? [students laugh] What about stealing a wallet from a park bench? These are modern-day examples of what expansionist attitudes were like, attitudes in which you take things out of greed.” (2/6/95, pp. 3-4).

In Lindsey’s class, discussion of United States reluctance to enter World War II and the question of whether the United States government knew about the Nazi concentration camps before 1942 included both teacher and student suggestions that Americans were looking out for themselves first and made excuses for not getting involved sooner. Lindsey then compared United States foreign policy in the 1930s and 1940s with 1990s’ policy vis-à-vis the Gulf War and involvement in Bosnia. And, as already noted, the image of America taking what it wanted (the Plains Indians’ land) came through clearly in Peter’s class.

Whereas “America’s underside” can be seen as emphasizing the “imperfect” in “America as imperfect but best,” the “can-do” sub-theme leans toward the “best.” Here, the image is of the United States as smart, a sought-after problem-solver, with a can-do attitude. Fred, for example, presented nineteenth century America as becoming stronger, in part by creating its own culture and inventing things. Prior to this time, he told his seventh-graders, people wrote about Europe. They painted pictures and wrote songs all about Europe. “So we decided that we’re Americans; let’s write about America” (3/9/95, p. 6). The next day’s class was about individual accomplishments representing “the growth of the arts and pride in the United States” (3/19/95, p. 7), including music reflecting African and European influences. Later in the semester, Fred’s students were offered a complementary image of a can-do America where people invented better ways of doing things. Most of the class was spent reviewing inventors and their inventions.

In Lindsey’s class, the United States appeared smart, if not right or good, because, for example, the Louisiana Purchase was “such a good deal” (3/8/95, p. 2). The United States also appeared as “acting tough” with the Monroe Doctrine. Later in the semester, Lindsey told students that “the United States has been asked to come into areas” (5/5/95, p. 1), such as Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti. The image was of a United States that was respected if not liked.


The second major theme was the image of America characterized by multiple perspectives and divergent views—a multifaceted America more like a prism than a pane of glass. In this image, various participants and subsequent onlookers are seen to view events differently, and these differences are seen as legitimate if not equally compelling. Sometimes possible reasons for different perspectives are explored. An image of multiple America was evident in Bryce’s and Rob’s classes with respect to foreign policy (the Spanish American and Vietnam wars) and more broadly in Lindsey’s and Peter’s classes, in which students were the source of images of America more often than in other classes. In the classes of seven of the eleven teachers, no student-generated images were noted. Most often, images of America were conveyed by teachers and instructional materials. Moreover, although several teachers said that they wanted students to have access to more than one point of view, we did not observe many instances of active student engagement with diverse viewpoints or perspectives.

In both Rob’s and Donna’s classes, students interrupted the teacher’s presentations with alternative views. For example, eighth-grade boys in Rob’s class called out complaints when he read from a NOW poster about why companies should hire more women: “It’s only opinion,” “propaganda,” “let’s have a debate” (3/16/95, p. 15). Rob told the boys that there was no time for a debate and continued the review for the next day’s exam. Donna side-stepped not only the government “rips you off” story but also a number of student questions, including “Why is Christopher Columbus so famous when the Indians were the first ones here?” Donna seemed taken aback. “Well,” she responded, “in studying history it has been chosen as an important event” (2/28/95, p. 3).

In Lindsey’s classes dealing with late-nineteenth-century foreign policy, a number of critical images of America were student generated. For example, after Lindsey defined imperialism and noted that expansionism is “another term for imperialism . . . but we’re going to question this,” a student volunteered, “Expansionism is what the United States calls it so it won’t sound so bad.” Lindsey responded, “Yes and no. But we’ll see. Good thinking” (3/8/95, p. 2). Students were the source of several images previously noted, including America as self-preoccupied, or selfish, and America as not always right or good. Peter also encouraged students to express (and defend) their views; such encouragement was not observed in the other classes. Although Bryce, for example, had students read opposing viewpoints about the Spanish American War, and offered his own, he did not solicit students’ views, and they did not volunteer. Interestingly, clearly challenging and unappreciated student comments (the government rips you off story, the question about why Columbus is so famous) came in Donna’s fifth-grade class, interrupting her storybook version of a good Euro-America. While students, as well as teachers, offered a range of views, they rarely (except in Peter’s class) engaged in extended dialogue.

In both Lindsey’s and Peter’s classes, multiple perspectives including student views seemed the norm. For example, students in Peter’s class not only recognized the different perspectives of Native Americans and westward-moving European-American settlers, but disagreed among themselves regarding current Native American land claims as indicated earlier. Native American perspectives received relatively less attention here as did the perspectives of late-nineteenth-century Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Filipinos in Lindsey’s class. Overall, the message conveyed in these classes was of an America where people (at least some people) have had the freedom or space both to dissent and to be wrong. Loyalty to America (as suggested, for example, by Lindsey and most of her students standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance along with the principal via the public address system) does not preclude critique. Such messages also appear to complement the overarching image of imperfect but best, America as number one despite past problems, current difficulties, and continuing dissent.

A final observation here is the tendency of several teachers to speak for “us,” particularly to use “we” as if referring to all United States citizens and residents, or at least all of the students in the class. Whether unconscious habit or purposeful, this use of “we” seemed presumptuous to me, whether the teacher was speaking for the students or indicating more widespread agreement. It suggested a much more homogeneous America than was portrayed directly in several classes and than many (most?) people have experienced.

Bryce’s assertions regarding what “we” believed in the past about “brown-skinned people” provide one example. This use of “we” Americans, without any observable student comment, may be puzzling because it occurred in an eighth grade class where more than half of the students are of African descent. Since students in this class rarely spoke out to raise questions or offer comments, perhaps their silence here is not surprising. Also relevant is the teacher’s interview comment that “I want everyone to know that they’re American in here. . . . We’re all African Americans if you go back far enough, too. So any of the African Americans in here won’t feel alienated thinking that they’re hyphenated American. Or anybody thinking they’re hyphenated American” (5/28/95, p. 6). So, it seems likely that Bryce’s “we” Americans was understood as inclusive.

The “we” of Fred’s comment, “So we decided that we’re Americans; let’s write about America,” in contrast, seemed encompassing of internal difference as well as difference from Europe. The language of “we” stood out in Lindsey’s classes alongside the divergent views previously noted. The image communicated was of Americans as pretty much the same or in agreement, for example, Lindsey’s statement that “everyone hated the British” (3/7/95, p. 4).

All three of these teachers seemed to be encouraging, and students seemed for the most part accepting, identification with mainstream white America as if there were few if any significant social divisions. Teachers may have been attempting to maintain classroom peace by suggesting agreement across racial-ethnic and other differences or trying to position their students and themselves as progressive “good guys.” In any event, the “we” message is at odds with others conveyed in several of these classes, adding to the image of America as a land of mixed messages. These mixed messages, within and across classes, fell within a broad middle range from liberal-skeptical-critical to conservative-traditional. There was no observed extremism of any suasion.


Teachers’ reports of the images of America conveyed in their classes tend to be sketchy as well as diverse. Most of the teachers seemed to find the question a difficult one to respond to on the spot. While our classroom observations did not always provide direct confirmation for reported images of America, unless otherwise noted, they did not provide contrary evidence. These teacher reports can be seen as reflecting beliefs that account in part for the provision of some America messages rather than others.

With few exceptions, the teachers conveyed images of America in their classes in positive, neutral, or moderately critical terms. Critical in this context means questioning, not necessarily being negative; it means being skeptical rather than accepting or agreeing with conventional accounts or the status quo, recognizing that conditions usually can, and often should, be improved. Three teachers described the images they conveyed in less evaluative language. Don and Lola responded very briefly that the image conveyed in their classes was one of diversity, and Donna talked about America as a can-do place where “everybody can do [i.e., accomplish] whatever they want to do” (6/8/95, p. 7). Don referred to diversity as “lots of different people coming from lots of different backgrounds . . . with lots of different ideas and values” (5/31/95, p. 6), while Lola mentioned religion, language, and immigration. “I purposely put up ‘I Am America’ [a poster],” she said, “showing people from some of the various ethnic groups, and how they all kind of blend together” (5/16/95, p. 8). In the classes we observed, however, Don and Lola presented an image of America as European, suggesting a limited sense of diversity.


On the positive side, Betty said that she tries to be positive and upbeat with her fifth-graders, and Lilly implied the same. Rob stated that he tries to present a positive image of America without hiding the negatives. Negatives include anti-immigrant feelings shared by some of his students as well as nativism in earlier historical periods. He mentioned pointing out to these students that if nativists had had their way when their grandparents came to the United States, “your grandparents would have never made it in here” (4/28/95, p. 7).8

Stan was the only teacher to describe himself as middle-of-the-road, by which he meant not taking a position one way or another on America.

It’s hard for me to say . . . that I have a certain view of America. I think if you would ask them [his students], they wouldn’t say I take one side or another, that I try to present a flow of events so that they can try to attempt to make some sense of it without being told that this was a bad thing. (5/25/95, p. 8)

Although he talked about fostering critical thinking among his students to discourage political distrust and apathy, we did not observe such teaching.

With Fred and Bryce, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers at the same school, reported images of America encompass critique, and both fault their textbooks for being overly positive. Fred described the textbook as saying

that America is the land of opportunity, that America is the land of the free, home of the brave type thing, right? We have had a few problems but for the most part this is the country that is the best in the world. I’m not saying that we’re a bad country, OK? . . . I would say probably throughout history it has done not a bad job. But we could do a whole lot better. (6/12/95, pp. 5, 6)

This is the older text. Fred described the new one, which he has not yet used, as skipping over many of America’s problems.

Bryce described the new text as

very multicultural, but it’s—it’s like Multicultural Lite. It covers a lot of different ethnic groups, but it doesn’t give a lot of meat and potatoes on any of them. Or, y’know . . . the Korean and Vietnam wars were in the same chapter, a two-three page chapter, with a special page about Korean and Vietnamese immigrants. (5/28/95, p. 2)

Describing himself as “not too crazy about that textbook” (p. 2), Bryce went on to explain how he frequently presents a different point of view because “the book kind of likes to sugarcoat. . . . And so it challenges them [Bryce’s students], and makes them think, and it lets them know there are different points of view out there” (p. 3).

Bryce’s commentary about the image(s) of America conveyed in his classes clearly reflects the theme of an imperfect America that is better than any other nation.

I always try to push . . . that America’s just like the kids who are sitting in here. . . . And I always try to make analogies that the kids will understand, and it’ll be—you know, America’s like you. Sometimes you’re good, and you’re hanging out in class, and you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you’re out in the hall throwing rocks at a bird, or something. Sometimes you don’t do things that are very nice because you think no one’s watching. Sometimes you get caught doing those, and sometimes you get away with it. But overall, you’re a pretty nice kid. . . .

I like to show that we have some positives, some negatives, just like most everyone else. And I—y’know, I tell them it’s still the greatest place to live in. You can be wrong, you can say what you want, you can throw on fatigues and run out in the fields and shoot things around because you hate your government, and they let you say you hate your government. They don’t say, “Oh, you said that?” Lock you up and, y’know, put a bullet in the back of your head like we’ve seen when we’ve done just a little bit of our world history, about World War II with Hitler and Stalin and those sort of things.

But I don’t know if everybody receives the same image that I’m trying to convey. And I don’t, I don’t consciously sit, when I’m writing up my lesson plan or when I’m sitting in class and something just pops into my head, I don’t consciously say, “This is what I want the kids to think of America,” because I want them to think whatever they want to think. (5/28/95, p. 6)

He elaborated the idea that “if you go back far enough . . . we’re all interrelated” (p. 6) and pointed out how he purposely uses “small pronoun references to ‘we’” and “us” to reinforce the idea that all the students are Americans—while acknowledging that “obviously they all know that they’re American because they have the Pledge drilled in every morning” (pp. 7- 8). “I think America has its ups and downs like anyplace else,” Bryce concluded, “but I still wouldn’t want to live anyplace else” (p. 8).

Lindsey expressed similar personal feelings as she described the image(s) of America conveyed in her classes as diverse and “working toward more unity” (7/3/95, p. 7).

OK, I think that the image that I described in my classroom would try to show that America is many things, is many people, ah, many cultures, and it’s unfortunately often more divisive than unified. . . . But I think that they all, hopefully, that they got a sense that, ah, there is hope if we can do kind of a more unified . . . first we’ve got to become aware of the divisions and why they exist, and some of the past occurrences that have led to this, and then hopefully from being recognized and stopped, that’s the first part of working toward more unity in America. (p. 7)


Probably the most critical images of America were reported by Peter, who eventually described himself, semi-humorously, as a “social revolutionary.”

The image I conveyed is one, as I said before, which is not, um, very popular today. I wouldn’t, I don’t want to even say liberal Democrat, I am not a liberal. . . . I guess I could look at it from a point of view of being a social revolutionary. I really—no, I, I’m dead serious about this. The laws that are being made, what produces all those laws? . . . Who’s benefiting by these policies? You know, why cut welfare programs? Are they really helping you? Oh, maybe in fact the whole attitude here is to lower wages. . . . So yes, it was meant to act on the Establishment. There’s no doubt about this. I’m not going to apologize for it, because if I don’t do it, nobody else will. (6/8/95, pp. 8-9)

Peter explained that he has “been very opinionated” this year, because he “wanted them [his students] to react to something,” and so “for the first time in a long time, I got off the fence” (p. 7). He recounted class segments examining what was happening in Congress (since the November 1994 mid-term elections) and how it affected the students, their families, and the community.

You know, many of the students I had were being affected by the policies of the Contract with America. So that became a theme. All year long, I just kept hitting on that all the time. What’s happening in America? But, but—the point being here, they found out who these people were. Who, who would have cared who Newt Gingrich was in this classroom. . . ? Their congressman, what’s he doing in this situation? What’s happening in the real world? How does that apply to the city? . . . I made it real, and I made it work, and I told them, y’know, I gave my own economic approach too. I told the whole attitude of Keynesian economics versus supply-side economics. Now we really—we saw some real practical applications of it. The fact that I sold one side or the other, you see, there’s a danger here. There’s absolutely no doubt about that at all. But at the same time, students could . . . react to it. They really knew there was a different approach here. One approach they were being given in the media, one approach they were hearing from neighbors and from people around them. The most—how shall we say—politically correct situation. And I gave them what was, has to be considered to be, both politically and economically incorrect by today’s standards. So—I wanted them to know, there’s another side here.

And I’m, I’m always playing the devil’s advocate. I will always take the wrong side of the issue, or at least a less popular side of the issue, if nothing else to get a rise out of them. And I did. I got their attention going. (6/8/95, p. 8)

In an earlier interview, Peter had conveyed an image of America as a continuing process with traditions that reappeared over time, such as populism and treating newcomers poorly.

But we still always seem to keep coming back to the same trends and the same traditions and so on. These are typically American traditions. I got into a little bit of that last week when I was talking about the impact that one ethnic group has on another ethnic group. It just seems to be an American attitude that we treat new groups coming into the country very poorly, and that this continues on right up to the present date. . . . So, what I really want when I’m finished, I want these students to understand that whereas times change, there are certain things that really have never changed. (2/7/95, p. 1)

With specific reference to the classes observed dealing with the Plains Indians, Peter recounted the following.

I had a young man in my eighth-period class say . . . something to the extent that white people were always dogging everybody. He said, “I’d like to see some white people get dogged for a change.” Those were his words. I said, “Well, you will. Wait’ll we start talking about immigration.” . . . even though I wasn’t talking about immigration or I wasn’t talking about slavery, you can see these kinds of related things. We’re talking about Native Americans, and their experience here with the white man really is what this course is all about. It’s not about Plains Indians. That’s not what this subject was all about. It was about the relationship that we had to each other in this country [emphasis added], and I don’t have all the answers. I make as many mistakes because I have my own problems; I’m living with my own background. (2/7/95, p. 7)

While Peter did not say more on this point, this comment and observations of his classes came the closest to providing a relational view, that is, to understanding what is taught at one time in relation (sometimes but not always dialectical) to what is taught at other times and to some larger image, process, or framework. In Peter’s case, the larger framework was composed of continuing or recurring themes or issues including inter-group relations.

We observed no instances of a fully relational view such as reciprocal history, which emphasizes multiple acculturation—the various ways in which diverse groups have influenced and learned from as well as about one another—and open-endedness as interaction continues and circumstances change. Reciprocal history would examine these interactions and interconnections from multiple perspectives or vantage points (see Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995, pp. 38-41, 196-198). So, for example, in Peter’s class, the immediate and longer range effects of westward movement of European settlers on the settlers as well as on Native Americans, conquered Mexicans, and the environment would be considered.

Compared with other aspects of their practice, the teachers had little to say about influences on the images of America they conveyed in their classes. Stated personal beliefs seemed to shape their America images, but they too remained largely unaccounted for. Peter, for example, did not at the time link his beliefs to particular events in his background or experience; later he mentioned coming from a strong union family as a partial explanation for his economic beliefs. Overall, teachers’ provision of some America images rather than others, by teacher accounts in the interviews, was shaped primarily by personal experience and belief, their perceptions of the communities served by the school, their students and student needs, and state or school district expectations, particularly in the form of mandated exams. There was little acknowledgment of peer or professional influence, societal changes, new knowledge, or of the national America debate, related issues, or state curriculum discourse and policy activity.


How might we understand the images of America conveyed in these elementary, middle, and high school social studies-United States history classes in city and suburban districts? What might we make of the classroom observations and teacher self-reports of the images of America conveyed?

The absence of a single predominant image of America in these social studies classes can be seen as reflecting the realities of United States history and contemporary society. The multiple perspectives and divergent views observed in at least four classes on more than one occasion seemed to reflect both the teachers’ and students’ understanding of some of America’s complexity, past and present, and teachers’ expressed interest in promoting critical thinking or thinking for oneself.

Unless one ventures into mythic realms, there simply is no single story to be told. America as emblematic of democracy and progress is one such mythic narrative, largely oblivious to the counter-experiences of those precluded from sharing the bounty (e.g., Appleby, 1992; Kessler-Harris, 1992). If school versions of United States history ever were stories of uninterrupted onward and upward progress toward realization of a Christian God’s promise or a secular American Dream, they clearly are not so now. There was no direct reference to either, nor did we discern any subtler references in the classes observed. Hope for a better future has been downsized.

The sense that schools used to convey a coherent story of United States history is more wishful thinking than actuality. Supporting evidence simply does not exist. Traditional chronology as an organizer, for example, provides sequence; it is no guarantor of coherence. Recall the oft-repeated description of school history as names, dates, and places—“one damn thing after another”—the “important truths” about United States history and government (Shaver et al., 1979, p. 151). If the United States history taught in public elementary and secondary schools was not often a coherent narrative, it does seem to have been a more consistent chronicle. Consistency was based on a positive tone and a continuing message of good intentions and progress both material and social.9

Closest to a dominant theme to emerge from both classroom observations and teacher interviews was “imperfect but best,” that is, America as the best country in the world despite past problems, current difficulties, and various complaints. An image of partial progress was evident in four classes where America was portrayed as changing and solving problems or righting (or ameliorating) past wrongs. Images of America’s underside—prejudice and self-interest—were evident also. As previously noted, critical comment rarely was sustained and tended not to be incorporated in ways that substantially altered the images of America that were conveyed. There was recognition of individual prejudice, sometimes widespread and including the nation personified, but no observed mention of institutional racism or structural inequalities. Reducing structural racism, sexism, and socioeconomic stratification to individual attributes deflects consideration of systemic change. Both responsibility and improvement are individualized. This phenomenon has been captured vividly in Benjamin DeMott’s The Trouble with Friendship (1995) in which he chastises the media for offering, and white Americans for buying, the expectation that the nation’s racial divide can be resolved by means of interracial friendship.

The mix of acceptance and dissent in the images of America put forward in these classrooms stands out. It is similar in some ways to characterizations of the national mood drawn from recent surveys, interviews, and focus groups (Uchitelle & Kleinfeld, 1996). In contrast to “ordinary citizens” or the much-polled United States electorate—frequently characterized as frustrated and/or distrustful, especially with respect to the federal government and economic prospects—the images observed and reported here generally were hopeful. Instead of alienation or malaise, we found disappointment alongside s till high expectations for America (cf. Hochschild, 1995).

A less generous interpretation of the America curriculum observed in practice focusses on both the predominance of partial, unconnected images and the frequently conveyed sense that history just happened and things continue to happen as if by chance or the inevitable unfolding of a divine or other plan (despite the widespread individualism previously noted). It would have been difficult to take a relational view in most of these classes. Even examination of causes, such as causes of the Spanish American War, seemed perfunctory. Why, for example, was yellow journalism so pervasive and influential on these matters at this time? Especially noteworthy was the lack of attention to collective human agency in the form of organized group activity and social movements. If things just happen, then it is difficult to find fault or sustain critique that might lead to transformation.

The near absence of recognition of individual and collective human agency, except for the occasionally heroic individual, seems linked to assumptions of impersonal causation and the near absence of a sense of social and political process that might join individuals and groups with longer-term movements and developments. Recall that America came into focus only in moments of critique, celebration, or crisis—and then flickered just briefly, not unlike a candle flame blown out by the wind. It remains unclear whether the seeming disjointedness is simply a reflection of contemporary sensibilities, like MTV, and/or a function of teacher knowledge, perceived examination press to “cover” the material, and the “contradictions of control” revealed by Linda McNeil’s (1986) analysis of high school social studies-history classes (i.e., controlling student behavior by controlling knowledge to minimize complexity and controversy). It is also likely, especially in desegregated and otherwise increasingly diverse classrooms, that middle-class norms of politeness and desire to keep the classroom peace (in part by controlling the knowledge that is considered, as well as more directly controlling student behavior) are higher priorities for teachers than student engagement with challenging subject matter, sensitive topics, or contentious issues. The teachers’ use of “we” and “us,” possibly just habit, also is consistent with this view.

A third interpretation of the images of America conveyed in these classes emphasizes the changes that the United States has been experiencing, including the historical and related social science scholarship that is enabling and providing impetus to efforts to construct a more comprehensive or multifaceted—or even reciprocal—United States history. Here, the United States is seen in increasing racial-ethnic-cultural complexity, groups and social processes as well as individuals and events are recognized, the growth in understanding is uneven, and the messages conveyed are mixed. Partial and parallel if not contradictory images are offered. Teacher practice, like contemporary culture, is in flux, undergoing change.

For example, two middle-school teachers who recognize problems with what might be called the received story of United States history, and who seem to be trying to change the images they offer their students to be more inclusive of different peoples and points of view, have not yet elaborated and refined them. In the concluding interview, Don reflected that

I think that probably, over time, I imagine that I would start trying to [pause] work that [multiple perspectives] into the curriculum in a little bit more regular way. Rather than, I mean, it’s kind of haphazard, probably, the way it comes up now. But I don’t know if that’s bad or not, but, just making sure that it, that they do get pieces of it. (5/31/95, p. 7)

To an outside observer, the message is choppy or uneven—though perhaps in its own way an appropriate representation of United States history and an uncertain 1990s America recreating itself in a post-cold war world of global economic competition, increasing domestic diversity, and rampant technology.

All three of these interpretations point to the disruption of the conventional story of America noted earlier. Merely tinkering with history curricula—by adding a few heroes and contributions from women and people of color to the existing narrative—embellishes it without changing its messages. In contrast, rewriting history so as to restore the experiences and perspectives of previously ignored (or barely mentioned) groups challenges not only the conventional wisdom but also the privileged positions of those individuals and groups who have benefited from dominant ideologies and prevailing distributions of power. It is this potentially significant disruption of the prevailing hierarchies in American society that seems most to worry many of those who have opposed a more multicultural history and social studies curriculum. In this view, calls for unity (on the old terms) are simply a political ploy. Representative democracy and capitalism remain powerful unifiers.

The dominant ideology of individualism in United States history, for example, supports both the assumption of meritocracy and the neglect of group (dis)advantage. With widespread acceptance of the belief that the United States is a meritocracy—that one’s success is largely or entirely a function of personal ability and effort—comes acceptance, however grudging, of those who are well off as deserving of their position and privilege. That individual members of some groups may have advantages or disadvantages because of their group memberships, (e.g., gender, family, socioeconomic status) is downplayed. Much more attention is given to individuals, both anonymous (e.g., the yeoman farmer, the factory worker) and heroic (e.g., presidents, inventors), than to racial-ethnic-cultural, class, or gender groups. Deflecting attention from group experiences and effects—and from critique generally—enables those who benefit from the status quo to sustain it. It also encourages those at the bottom to work within the system, reassuring them however falsely that they too can succeed if only they work hard enough.

Despite the warnings of self-appointed guardians of traditional United States history, such as former National Endowment for the Humanities director Lynne Cheney, and recently enacted conservative curriculum policies in states such as California and New York (Cornbleth, 1996b; Cornbleth & Waugh, 1995), our classroom observations and teacher interviews suggest that many teachers neither accept nor convey images of an unsullied, progressive America. The conventional story has been disrupted, and there is no equivalent successor in sight. This in itself, of course, may not be revolutionary. The changes are sufficient, however, to make conservatives uneasy and prompt young people to raise questions about the nation’s past, present, and future.

Public schools in the United States have long been arenas in which Americans have fought battles over national values and priorities (e.g., Kliebard, 1986, 1992). Curriculum is continually contested, and America remains a continuing project, not a finished product to be transmitted to future generations like the passing of the baton in a relay race.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York City, April 11, 1996. It stems from the cross-subject area Fallingwater research project co-directed by S. G. Grant, Suzanne Miller, Barry Shealy, and myself. My thanks to S. G. Grant, Hugh G. Petrie, Lois Weis, and historian David A. Gerber for feedback on an earlier draft of this article and to research project staff members who contributed to the data and interpretation on which the paper draws: S. G. Grant, Steve Kutno, Julia Marusza, and Kim Truesdell. Research support from the Professional Development Network, Graduate School of Education, University at Buffalo should not be construed as concurrence with the interpretations offered and positions taken here.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 4, 1998, p. 622-646
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10284, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:45:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Cornbleth
    University at Buffalo
    Catherine Cornbleth is professor of education, University of Buffalo. She is co-author of the The Great Speckled Bird (Erlbaum, 1995). She continues to work in the areas of curriculum politics-policy-practice and the social identities of young people and nation states.
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