One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.” He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed. For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given. I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian. By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.
The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts. We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature. The issue is not one of a lack of explanation. What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention. I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle. At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it. It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents. I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period. For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation.
More to the point, such an idea undercuts my ability as a history teacher to present the past in all of its complexity. There was nothing miraculous about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 or the formulation of the Bill of Rights. It was a process that was frought with compromise (on some pretty heavy moral issues) mistrust and a sense of urgency in the wake of the Revolution. One of the most important things that I emphasize when I am teaching this period, especially the Constitutions Convention of 1787, is that it did not have to turn out the way it did. At any point delegates from the various states could have decided that a closed convention with the shades drawn in temperatures above 90 degrees was simply not to their liking. We can easily imagine alternative outcomes. My students read the entire Constitution, but they are told to do so as a product of a contested debate over the meaning of freedom and competing memories of the Revolution. They don’t sit there and gawk at it as having emerged out of nothing. There is nothing miraculous at all about it.
And isn’t that the reason why we should press on with the work of making sure that each generation has a certain level of understanding of how our government works? We should teach civics and history because this nation (like any other nation) is not a miracle. If it were we could simply wait around for that next moment of divine intervention. I choose not to hold my breadth and to continue with my work.