Teaching American History at Laurel

The core mission of Laurel’s History Department is to teach students to think historically across the curriculum. This means developing in our students a discrete set of analytical tools that is applicable in the study of American, European, and World History. Through engagement with primary sources, students learn how to determine causality, trace continuity and change over time, and place events into context. This approach promotes critical-thinking skills that will remain with our students through Laurel’s Upper School, college, and beyond.

In using this approach, history becomes both complex and contingent by design. There are no simple stories. This is especially true in American History. As Gouverneur Morris wrote in the preamble to the Constitution, America’s purpose was and is the formation of a “more perfect union.” More perfect plainly means that our nation is not, and has never been, perfect. The story of America, then, is the story of a nation making progress…of moving towards perfect. It is not neat. It is not tidy. It has certainly not been easy. But this story has made us who we are today.

In teaching the story of America, our girls learn that the Constitution created a land of unparalleled opportunity while also allowing chattel slavery and codifying those held in bondage as three-fifths of a human. They discovered that women contributed to the Revolutionary effort in a multitude of ways but only one state, New Jersey, actually gave them the right to vote at the founding. It would take that right away in 1806 and women would not get the vote at the Federal level for more than a century later. Our students learn that the First Amendment made religious freedom one of our fundamental precepts but also that anti-Catholic bigotry was an animating force in American politics for several decades in the 19th and 20th centuries.

At Laurel, we debate these and other contradictions as we study our history. We tell the story of a nation striving to reach its potential and to fulfill its promise of liberty and equality for all citizens. In our American Government class, for example, students form a mock Congress to debate and pass their own legislation. In our most recent session, students drafted bills to expand eligibility of Medicare, ensure the sanctity of the Second Amendment, and reduce the burden of standardized testing on high school seniors. In all of our classes, we engage with the words of the men and women of all colors who shaped our past to always keep their perspective in the foreground. Only then can we adequately assess where we came from and anticipate where we are going. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to note that teaching the African American experience is a key aspect of the history department’s mission year-round. This year, our Juniors and Seniors had the opportunity to take a course on African American culture entitled Harlem to Hip-Hop. Next year, the Harlem to Hip-Hop course will be revised and expanded and become English 12. Laurel will also be adding African American History to its slate of courses taught through the Kenyon Academic Program. This unique program allows Laurel teachers to partner with Kenyon College instructors to deliver an academically rigorous experience that gives students college credit for completing the course. 

In addition, to enhance curricular discussions and help our community work toward becoming a truly Anti-Racist institution, our history faculty has led book discussions for faculty and staff on Isabelle Wilkerson’s Caste and a community discussion on Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning this year. By grounding ourselves in history and engaging in frank, open discussion, these groups have offered an opportunity to broaden our knowledge, share ideas and experiences, and develop concrete ways to incorporate Anti-Racist ideas across the curriculum.