Unit 2: The American Jungle: Gaining Historical Literacy to Untangle Notions of Democracy, Meritocracy and the American Dream

Our purpose for this unit is to examine how our culture supports the concept of meritocracy despite the social realities that are often hidden from our view. We will begin with a series of interdisciplinary workshops that explore the great irony of the vision for freedom as established in the Constitution, while the realities of slavery and Native American genocide occurred simultaneously. We will then untangle the nature of democracy, meritocracy and the American Dream that have become a part of our American mythology. To do this, we will highlight some of the voices that had been left out of the original “Dream,” namely those who were critical of it, as in the case of the Transcendentalists, and more importantly, those who despite all of their efforts could not attain success, as seen in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and August Wilson’s Fences. We will conclude the unit by reading and recreating F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel on the unfulfilled lives of the upper class, The Great Gatsby, with our fabulous interpretation entitled “The Gatsby Dinner Party.”

Native American History Workshop

This workshop will begin with a brief look at Native American history before Europeans arrived. Next, it will move to the meeting of Native Americans and Europeans in North America and the immediate consequences of the colonization of North America. After the settlement of Jamestown there would be nearly three centuries of warfare across the continent between Native Americans and European Americans. This was followed by the creation of reservations and attempts to assimilate Native Americans.

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This workshop will begin with a brief look at Native American history before Europeans arrived. Next, it will move to the meeting of Native Americans and Europeans in North America and the immediate consequences of the colonization of North America. After the settlement of Jamestown there would be nearly three centuries of warfare across the continent between Native Americans and European Americans. This was followed by the creation of reservations and attempts to assimilate Native Americans. The workshop will conclude with a look at modern socioeconomic conditions for Native Americans across the United States.

Readings:

First Peoples, Colin Calloway
“Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” Howard Zinn
“As Long as Grass Grows or Water Runs,” Howard Zinn
“Surprises,” Howard Zinn
“Symbolic Racism, History, and Reality: The Real Problem With Indian Mascots,” Kimberly Roppolo

Films:

Clips from Pocahontas
Massacre at Mystic
Smoke Signals

Key Concepts:

Genocide
Indian Removal
Exclusion from American Dream

Native American Literature Workshop

Students will read excerpts from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie, about contemporary life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. Throughout the workshop, students will conduct an analysis of Alexie’s literary interpretation of the current realities of Native American life. Coupling with the Native American History Workshop, students will explore how the past treatment of Native Americans coincides with the issues of today.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP

Students will read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie, about contemporary life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. Throughout the workshop, students will conduct an analysis of Alexie’s literary interpretation of the current realities of Native American life. Coupling with the Native American History Workshop, students will explore how the past treatment of Native Americans coincides with the issues of today.

Readings:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

Films:

Smoke Signals
Unleanring “Indian” Stereotypes

Key Concepts:

Native American stereotypes
Reservation life
Storytelling

African American History Workshop

At a time of hope and optimism about the kind of nation that could be built here in the “New World”– one of freedom and equality– we enslaved millions of Africans for over two hundred years.  In this workshop will explore “the Great Irony” of establishing democracy, while solidifying slavery, thus examining a painful, yet important part of our nation’s history.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP

At a time of hope and optimism about the kind of nation that could be built here in the “New World,” one of freedom and equality, we enslaved millions of Africans for over two hundred years. In this workshop, we will explore “the Great Irony” of establishing democracy, while solidifying slavery, thus examining a painful, yet important part of our nation’s history.

Readings:

“Drawing the Color Line” by Howard Zinn
The Drinking Gourd by Lorraine Hansberry

Films:

Amistad
Gone With the Wind

Key Concepts:

Middle Passage
African Slave System
Spanish Slave System
English/Colonial Slave System
⅗ Compromise
Runaway Slave Law
Underground Railroad
Abolitionist Movement
Emanicaption Proclamation
Reconstruction

African American Art Workshop

While many artists have used the African American experience as subject matter in their work, few have focused specifically on the painful, yet powerful imagery of slavery. This workshop begins with a study of Kara Walker’s art of paper cutting, where she used silhouettes to create chilling scenes of slave life. Then, we move to a study of Romare Bearden’s work, an artist who also used similar subject matter, but left viewers with a very different feeling from that of Walker’s.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP

While many artists have used the African American experience as subject matter in their work, few have focused specifically on the painful, yet powerful imagery of slavery. This workshop begins with a study of Kara Walker’s art of paper cutting, where she used silhouettes to create chilling scenes of slave life. Students will engage in a discussion on the controversy surrounding Walker’s art, deciding at what point a stereotypical racial image becomes problematic or dangerous. Then, we move to a study of Romare Bearden’s work, an artist who also used similar subject matter, but left viewers with a very different feeling from that of Walker’s. Students will be challenged to determine where they stand on this issue in order to create their own art piece, a Romare Bearden styled collage that highlights either “the Great Irony” of slavery, or a theme or scene from The Drinking Gourd.

Readings:
“Kara Walker’s art traces the color line,” Marianne Combs

Key Concepts:
Stereotypical racial images
Social Commentary
Collage
Silhouettes
Paper Cutting
Elements and Principles of Art
Color Theory

American Dream History Workshop

This workshop is the historical foundation for the tangled relationship between the “American Dream” and meritocracy. Our examination of “success” in American culture begins with the construction of the Constitution, including an analysis of the men that spearheaded the creation and implementation of this document.

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This workshop is the historical foundation for the tangled relationship between the “American Dream” and meritocracy. Our examination of “success” in American culture begins with the construction of the Constitution, including an analysis of the men that spearheaded the creation and implementation of this document. While Benjamin Franklin laid the foundation for the “self made man” ideology, it was the first Industrial Revolution and resulting economic boom that really set the wheels in motion of the pursuit of the elusive dream. Authors, clergymen, and statesmen alike published and preached with adamant fervor the promise of success through hard work. Through a variety of messages to the public, they assured prosperity and a legacy of American fortune. While this message seemed promising, the reality was clear: the unequal distribution of wealth in this country was creating a vast disparity between those that had access to resources and those that did not. The promise of equal opportunity for “all” turned out to be unattainable for many, especially people of color, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups. The “dream” turned against those that did not meet the standards of success, and the dogma of meritocracy deemed them as simply not working hard enough despite the unequal foundation from which they began.

Readings:

“The American Founding”
Preamble to the Constitution
“The Self Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches,” Irvin Wyllie
“Robber Barons and Rebels,” Howard Zinn
“From European Aristocracy to American Meritocracy”

Films:

John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address
30 Days episode

Key Concepts:

The “American Dream”
Meritocracy
Distribution of wealth
Impact of the social realities in the pursuit of the American Dream

Transcendental Philosophy Workshop

Important to the discussion of the American founding are those voices who challenged the corruption inherent in the material pursuit of the American Dream and who sought to remind Americans of the ideals of democracy. We will explore the philosophy of Transcendentalism, a protest philosophy in the mid 1800’s that brought about an American Renaissance in art, literature, and politics, impacting generations thereafter.

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Important to the discussion of the American founding are those voices who challenged the corruption inherent in the material pursuit of the American Dream and who sought to remind Americans of the ideals of democracy. We will explore the philosophy of Transcendentalism, a protest philosophy in the mid 1800’s that brought about an American Renaissance in art, literature, and politics, impacting generations thereafter.

Readings:

Excerpts from:

  • “Self-Reliance”and “Nature” Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Films:
The Great Dictator
A Force More Powerful

Key Concepts:
Transcendentalism
Oversoul
Emanation
Materialism
Idealism
Hudson River School
Civil Disobedience
Non-Violence

Performance Art Workshop

The lure of democratic freedom and equality attracted masses of European immigrants to the emerging metropolises of the Industrial North. The expectation was a place of opportunity where everyone had the chance to become wealthy. By 1920 more than half of America’s population lived in cities. However, as a result of over-population and the exploitation of the immigrants, living and working conditions for them became oppressive.

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Third Wave Immigrants and Social Reformers Workshop

In this workshop, students learn about how America’s ideals of democratic freedom and equality attracted masses of European immigrants to the emerging metropolises of the Industrial North. The expectation was a place of opportunity where everyone had the chance to become wealthy. By 1920 more than half of America’s population lived in cities. However, as a result of over-population and the exploitation of the immigrants, living and working conditions for them them became oppressive. Two major social reformers exposed the corruption and exploitation of vulnerable immigrants, Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis. Through an analysis of Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Riis’ photojournalism, students will write and perform plays chronicling the daily life of European immigrants living in Chicago and New York at the turn of the century.

Readings:

The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

Key Concepts:

American Dream
Three Waves of Immigration
Exploitation
Muckraking
Oppressive living/working conditions
Restrictive Immigration Laws

Literature Workshop

In this workshop we will examine themes directly connected to aspects of class: meritocracy and the American Dream. In order to explore these themes, we will read two thought provoking American dramas, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and August Wilson’s Fences.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP

In this workshop we will examine themes directly connected to aspects of class: meritocracy and the American Dream. In order to explore these themes, we will read two thought provoking American dramas, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and August Wilson’s Fences.The American Dream asserts that any striver can walk in with a “smile and a shoeshine”, put in hard work, and go home rich. Through universal father/son, husband/wife and, family relationships, both Miller and Wilson provide us with a scathing commentary on the pursuit of the American Dream. It is this dream that drives the actions of our two main characters of focus, Willy and Troy; however, their social realities ultimately get in the way of their possible success.

Readings:

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
Fences, August Wilson

Key Concepts:

American Dream
Meritocracy
Success

Gatsby Workshop

We conclude this unit by reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel on the unfulfilled lives of the upper class, The Great Gatsby, and then creating an original interpretation of both the novel and the art of Judy Chicago, called The Great Gatsby Dinner Party, an evening of food, art, and theater.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP

We conclude this unit by reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American novel on the unfulfilled lives of the upper class, The Great Gatsby, and then creating an original interpretation of both the novel and the art of Judy Chicago, called The Great Gatsby Dinner Party, an evening of food, art, and theater.

Readings:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Film:

The Great Gatsby

Key Concepts:

Old money vs. New money
Careless Rich
Image vs. Substance
Self Made Man
American Dream
Assemblage
Found Objects
Art of Keinholz
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party