The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf of the Library of Congress.
Identifying and reflecting on multiple perspectives can help students develop a more rounded, nuanced understanding of history. For example, a study of historical primary sources related to questions of loyalty, security, freedom of expression, and dissent during the World War I era naturally brings to the surface a conflict between two ideals: national security and constitutional liberties. But viewing these sources through the lens of multiple perspectives helps students understand that there are many more than two sides – or perspectives – related to this issue.
Shortly after the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Congress passed several measures, ostensibly for the purpose of securing allied victory overseas and security at home. The Espionage Act of 1917 was designed to prevent sabotage to wartime equipment as well as willful acts that might aid the enemy or result in military insubordination. In 1918, this Act was extended through a series of amendments. Known collectively as the Sedition Act, these amendments criminalized the expression of speech critical of the government that could be construed as harmful or opposed to the war effort.
Consider this 1918 article, “Priest and Three Others Tarred By Mob as Disloyal,” which describes how vigilante mobs in one town tarred and feathered a number of U.S. citizens deemed guilty of “disloyal speech.” Allow time to read it, and then challenge students to brainstorm as many potential viewpoints related to the story as they can, casting a broad net: “Who is involved?”; “Who is affected?”; “Who might have an interest in this story?” This brainstorm will likely generate numerous perspectives beyond their initial ideas. Students might speculate about how longtime residents, recent immigrants, pacifists, nativists, foreign spies, the newspaper editor, U.S. lawmakers, President Woodrow Wilson, and many more people could have reacted to the events described by the article.
After the brainstorm, enliven this speculation by asking students to take turns acting out one of the perspectives, helping them to appreciate nuances and to build empathy for different viewpoints. One excellent resource for applying this strategy is Harvard Graduate School’s Project Zero Program’s Circle of Viewpoints routine.
Additional primary sources may be added to provide a richer experience. The political cartoon “Now for a Round Up” provides commentary on the passage of the Sedition Act and introduces additional “characters” for students to research, such as “I.W.W” and “Sein Fein.” Meanwhile, this oral history of a conscientious objector provides a perspective less often heard. After analyzing each additional primary source, revisit the list and add additional viewpoints prompted by the new sources.
For many more resources that you can add to this list for students to examine, go to the Library of Congress World War I topic page. Let us know which ones work in your classroom!
This set of three primary sources, along with the visible thinking routine that helps students identify a variety of viewpoints, seem to me to represent a far more powerful teaching approach than reading about the sedition act in a textbook. In fact, I wonder if students could form a working definition of sedition based on the primary sources alone, then fill in the gaps with a bit of additional research. Once they have solidified the concept, they should also be able to find numerous examples of dissent and governmental efforts (and laws) to control dissent in the world today.
Thank you for pulling together these resources and for suggesting related teaching ideas. So many possibilities!