U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned

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.”

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. doomed

    Those are the first three words off the top of this not-so-young-American’s head.

    I’m not watching this historic moment today. I can read about it later. (History is handy that way.) Instead, I am prepping to teach my Friday noon section of the survey. This is for the community college, whose semester started a week later than the university. First class meeting (syllabus day) was Wednesday. So what’s on deck today? I’m back to Thomas Nast’s Reconstruction-era cartoons.

    “This is a white man’s government.”

  2. Could you get a sense of the rationale behind the ones who provided “negative” words? That is, were they more despairing or more angry, rejecting the neoliberal status quo? I’m curious whether this might indicate resignation or consciousness raising.

    • Not a lot of anger at neoliberalism in my classroom, at least not in these students’ words or attitudes in that exercise. So closer to despair…though I also think they don’t feel helpless or hopeless.

      • One of the few things that keeps hope burning in me is that Millennials as a generation possess so much more optimism than Xers, who seem to have valourized cynicism (all broady speaking, of course). Teaching has ended up being as much about checking my cynicism as nurturing their optimism. Hopefully your students can channel those negative assessments in constructive ways.

  3. The setting for the post is a class in the Honors College of the flagship university of a deeply Republican state, Oklahoma.

    Of course, 13 students is a very small sample, but one can imagine what a similar exercise at a college or university in a more leftish/liberal part of the country might have produced… i.e., even more negative words, in all likelihood.

    • And the Honors College is significantly less Republican / conservative than Oklahoma or even OU. Heck, the HC is less Oklahoman than OU as a whole, thanks to our generous National Merit scholarship program. I saw some signs of Trump support around OU, but the Republican students in the HC are more likely to be Kasich or Bush Republicans than Trumpists.

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