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Google “the American Dream” and you will be met with links to countless articles offering perspectives on what constitutes success in the United States today. When I ask students in my US History II courses to define the “American dream” the first response is almost always “rags to riches.” As they flesh out the the definition, however, the students include the opportunity to be educated, to own a home, or obtain citizenship. Teaching at a community college since 2007 has afforded me the opportunity to witness many families’ “American dreams” in progress. In the classroom, we use Horatio Alger’s story Ragged Dick as our centerpiece for discussing the concept in the context of (post-Civil War) nineteenth-century American life.


I like the simplicity of the plot of Ragged Dick, in particular the way that the story offers readers a glimpse of urban life and child labor, albeit through fiction aimed at young readers. I’ve been told by students over the years that following the well-intentioned -- and very lucky -- protagonist through his adventures as a New York City bootblack is “fun” compared with the more complex readings assigned by their college professors. I’m ok with this analysis: we cover some really heavy topics in US History II so I’ll take “fun” where I can find it!


We discuss the story during the second week of classes, which forces the students to jump quickly into reading for my course. The story is easily accessible through a free online download, which makes it a great choice for the start of the semester when students may be having challenges figuring out the bookstore or with financial aid. I include a link to Project Gutenberg on our learning management system so that students can get started with the reading without delay.


My class meets twice a week for seventy-five minutes and students need to have the reading completed by our fourth class meeting. When they arrive at class they take a ten-question multiple choice quiz on the plot and then we break into discussion groups of 4-6 students. I lecture for 10-15 minutes to provide students with some historical context about Horatio Alger and remind them what was going on nationally when the book was published in 1868. The first couple chapters in their textbook reading have supplied them with background as well.


The students then brainstorm the following questions (posted on the board) with their groups:

  • Define the “American dream” in 2018
  • Define the “American dream” as portrayed by Alger’s story
  • How has the “dream” changed since Alger’s writing of the book?
  • What does this story teach us about childhood in the mid-late nineteenth century?


I ask the students to first think about what the “American dream” means today because it is often the topic that gets them the most excited during the discussion. I’ve found that the rest of the discussion builds on that energy and enthusiasm. I also provide the students with a recent analysis of current economic conditions in the United States to offer some comparative perspective to what they have been reading in their textbook about the nineteenth century. This semester, for example, I shared the article “Unbalanced: Seven Notes on Our Gilded Age” (Boston College Magazine), which offers a succinct analysis of earnings and wealth that students can skim quickly as part of their group discussion.


After the students have been working with their group members for 10-15 minutes, I add these questions to the list:

  • Who is missing from Alger’s story?
  • How do race and gender impact the formulation of one’s “American dream”?

With these last questions I want the students to focus in on the fact Ragged Dick is a story about white males. I ask them in our discussion to imagine New York City in this era through the eyes of a person of color, an immigrant, or a female of Dick’s age.


We spend the last 10-15 minutes of class time sharing each groups’ answers to the questions. In particular, I want them to draw some larger conclusions about the “American dream” that will set us on a path for discussion of turn-of-the-century topics such as immigration and expansion.


Is there a short story or novel that you are using in a history course that inspires energetic and meaningful class discussion?  Please share!

Some of the most thought-provoking primary sources I use in United States II are videos available to us all via the world wide web. I feel fortunate to teach in a time when so many great resources are available for us to share in our classrooms. Here are a few that have provided my students with visual records of the past while stimulating quality class discussion.


Japanese Relocation 1942 and Manpower 1943

    If you’re examining the home front during World War II these two short films are a great way to supplement lecture materials on the internment policy and the need for workforce mobilization during the war. My students have been particularly fascinated by the depiction of the Japanese as helpful and happy during their forced migration, and by how the audience may have reacted to the contents of this short film. Women and African-American men are the focus of Manpower, which explains the government’s need for full employment during wartime, especially the goal of placing people in jobs where their pre-war skills could be best utilized. Each of these sources runs less than 10 minutes.


Duck and Cover - Bert the Turtle (1951) and Survival Under Atomic Attack (1951)

No class discussion of the Cold War is complete without at least one of these short civil defense films, which help students better understand the way in which American society was trained to respond to the threat of nuclear weapons. Both films seek to reassure the public that preparedness is key. Students in my classes have raised questions about the scientific foundations on which these films were based and compared modern-day propaganda seeking similar objectives. Each of these films also runs less than 10 minutes.


Crisis in Levittown (1957)

    At nearly 30 minutes in length, Crisis in Levittown requires more class time but is time well spent. In this rare documentary , a sociologist’s analysis of Levittown, Pennsylvania, residents’ responses to the arrival of the neighborhood’s first black family is interspersed with footage of interviews with the residents. This film is a great way to connect discussion of 1950s’ suburban life with the civil rights movement. The fact that it took place in a northern state adds layers to the discussion.


I’m constantly seeking new ways to inject energy and enthusiasm into class meetings by supplementing. If you have suggestions for short, primary source videos t on the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, please share!