Seventh Graders Consider What Defines America

By Topher Nichols, Chief Communications Officer & Director of Academic Systems; Seventh Grade Social Institutions Teacher

Social Institutions is an elective course for seventh graders in which we look at how and why society is shaped the way it is. We begin the year by looking at how culture is made and how specific institutions shape a country, like its form of government, economic system, religion, and more. Then we take an in-depth look at three countries that are not normally prominent in the American history curriculum. This year, as in the past few years, we are studying Saudi Arabia and Islam in particular, México with a focus on trade and immigration, and the pacific island Kiribati (pronouned Keer e baas) and its projection to be the first country to become uninhabitable from sea level rise due to climate change. In the final two months of the year, students choose their own country to research and present to their classmates.

We begin our study of institutions by exploring some basic ideas, like how a market economy differs from a command economy, the prominent forms of government in practice today, and how cultural bias shapes and skews our understanding of ourselves and others. As a wrap-up to this first unit, students write their first major essay of the year, which students just submitted four days ago. The prompt for the essay asks just one question but has no singularly correct answer: “What is the most important social institution in the U.S.?” 

I have assigned this essay for the past four years, and it is always interesting to read the answers, but this year in particular this question strikes a resounding chord. I will concede it is difficult to avoid partisanship during this heated election season, but setting personal politics aside, one can easily find examples of people from both parties accusing the “other side” of destroying those things that make America what it is. At its heart, this course gives students the tools to understand how our institutions, both formal and informal, shape America’s unique identity, so that they can form their own opinions about what is at stake in a moment like this.

When I assign this essay each year I emphasize for students that there is no single right answer. The goal is to make an argument using evidence to persuade the reader. A few examples of institutions that highlight what today’s seventh graders are thinking on the eve of the presidential election: schools, family, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, the executive branch and the presidency, and our democratic republican form of government.

And, unsurprisingly, given the recent Supreme Court appointment and talk of lawsuits around ballots, one student highlighted the judicial branch as the most important institution. The student wrote this in their conclusion, “All of us must follow the law. However, what the law says or means is not always clear.  There are certain to be situations in which we disagree with other people.  The judicial system helps resolve these situations. By providing us with a decision in these circumstances, the judicial system provides a way for people and organizations to correct things that are not right, get on with other parts of their lives and try to do the right thing in the future.  If we all agree to abide by the decisions of the judicial branch we can get over disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

Whether we know who the next president will be late tomorrow night or a few weeks from now, there is a good chance the judicial branch will play a decisive role in this election. Whoever the next president is will likely have a profound impact on our country’s institutions, but perhaps the biggest question that is to be determined is how a nation so divided can do like our astute seventh grader says and “get over our disagreements and still be part of the same country.”

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