For over a decade, I’ve begun my lower-division Honors course on American Social Thought with a simple exercise. After we go around and introduce ourselves, I ask the class to write down the first adjective that comes to mind when they think of the United States of America. I then go around the room, ask them to tell the class their word, and write it on the white board. When all the adjectives are on the board, I ask my students to tell me what they think the collection of descriptions they just generated says about America, themselves, and that moment in time.
I get all kinds of responses to this question. I ask them to write their words down first, because I don’t want them to be influenced by each other in the words they pick. Over the years, the collection of words has varied, fluctuating from more celebratory, to more critical as events ebb and flow.
I’ll often group the words on the board as I write them. This Tuesday, when my class met for the first time, I had decided to write the words in three columns: green ink on the left for positive words, black ink in the middle for neutral ones, red ink on the right for negative words. But something happened that had never happened before.
There were no positive words. Nothing even close, in fact. Out of a class of thirteen young Americans, not one of them thought something positive when they thought of their own country. Negative words outnumbered neutral ones. And the only word chosen by more than one student – four students in fact — was “divided.”