From the Mouths of Babes

Posted on October 1, 2012 by


“What does it mean to be an American?” I asked.

“Freedom”, “Liberty”, “Taking care of each other” kids responded, eagerly standing up to give an answer after being called on. My partner and I were interviewing a class of second graders for our first US history project of the year: our mission is, essentially, to answer the question “What does it mean to be American in 2012?”

Asking a bunch of 8-year-olds this question may not seem like the obvious approach, but they offered some surprisingly astute ideas and, of course, plenty of adorable ones as well. One boy was very distressed by the fact that many Americans abuse, or don’t even use, their right to vote. As he put it, “We worked so hard to be free from England, and now you’re going to write in Mickey Mouse for president? It’s just such a waste!” Similarly, another girl pointed out that, in spite of the hard fought battle for women’s rights to vote, many American women still don’t participate in elections. Keep in mind: all of this is coming from second graders.

I was very pleased with our interview with the second grade–we had gained another valuable point of view for our project. Aside from this interview, my partner and I emailed many of our relatives with questions, getting an overwhelming amount of thoughtful and intriguing responses from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends. We also looked at some secondary sources, such as a reading from a book on American history, a few journal articles, and statistics and survey results. One of the web pages we found is called The American Identity, from the Future of American Democracy Foundation’s website. While it does not directly answer our guiding question, this page did give us a good idea of what kinds of questions we needed to ask to get at the core of what it means to be an American. My partner and I also looked at such noteworthy sources as the Declaration of Independence, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech, the Gettysburg Address, and even some clips of the London 2012 Olympics.

If there was one thing I had to draw from this project at this point, it would be that a core part of the American identity is freedom. I think it is accurate to say that in each interview, secondary source, and primary source we have looked at, freedom has been mentioned every time. The second graders, too, talked quite a lot about freedom–sometimes it’s true that the greatest wisdom comes ‘from the mouths of babes’. However, I know that, although freedom is important, it is certainly not the only thing Americans value. So, if this blog post has made you consider the question “What does it mean to be an American in 2012”, please share your thoughts in a comment. I would love to continue the conversation about American identity, as every person has a different and equally important point of view.


Picture: American flags. 2011. Photograph. Alex Zorach’s blog. Web. 30 Sep 2012.

Posted in: Projects