US History Big Question: Is America the Land of Opportunity?

AmericaLandofOpportunity

Well of course it is!

But is it?

This lesson, designed by history teacher Melissa Kinsey from Washington, Illinois, explores the interplay between American history and human perception. As she describes, sometimes what we perceive to be true depends on who is perceiving it.

Melissa starts with a provocative chapter from Dr. Andrew Pessin’s 60-Second Philosopher titled the Eyeball of the Beholder, and then directs students to this intriguing website on face illusions. With unique perceptions in mind, students explore how different groups (Native Americans and English colonists) viewed a common historical event– the settlement of America. They document their findings on this chart.

What I really like about Melissa’s Big Question is that it addresses three important criteria.


  • It confuses.  Many students probably walk into this lesson assuming that America is the Land of Opportunity. That assumption is now shaken by a Big Question.  
  • It reveals multiple perspectives. The question reveals that a static one-sided answer does not exist. Truth, then, must be seen through the eyes of different historical actors.  
  • It begs for clearer definitions. Opportunity for whom? Opportunity to do what? What does opportunity actually mean? The word ‘opportunity’ demands a clear definition.

As Melissa suggests, teachers can revisit this very same Big Question in subsequent units – the American Revolution, Civil War, Manifest Destiny for instance- to explore further the relationship between history and human perception.

Download full lesson

LessonArtifacts

Author: Dan Fouts

Since 1993 I've taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. I have an undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy from Bradley University and a M.S. in education and social policy from Northwestern University. I served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-201. Additionally, I work with NCSS to create and instruct online courses designed to help middle/high school teachers integrate Big Questions into their classrooms.

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