American Citizenship Past, Present, and Future?

This complete module with all materials may be downloaded as a PDF here.

Hunt Davidson

Chattanooga Christian School

Chattanooga, TN

Editor’s Note: Most of this module was created over a several year period by Chattanooga Christian School History Department Chair Gary Lindley, working with Hunt Davidson. Portions of this module can be traced back to Covenant College Professor Steve Kaufmann. The editor expanded the original module and added supplemental information and activities.

 Grammar Class

Seventeenth-century grammar school class. Source: City of Boston blog at

Classics Illustrated

Cover of Classics Illustrated No. 63, featuring "The Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale. Source: Linda Hall Library at

The module was developed and utilized for a ninth-grade civics and American government class. However, the content of the module is “high expectations,” and the module can be utilized in most high school standard or honors U.S. government or history classes. The module was created for a Christian school, but this version is designed for use in both public and private schools.

Estimated module length: Three hours and fifteen minutes (about one hour each for three classes, about thirty to forty-five minutes for day one's homework, and about forty-five to sixty minutes for day two's homework)


The essential question “What does it mean to be an American citizen?” has been at the heart of our national dialogue since the founding. Indeed, simply investigating our original national motto, e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”), reveals that a general conceptualization of what kind of people we were to be was central to understanding the Founders’ conceptions of the Republic and of national identity. What have many Americans believed to be “good citizenship” at various junctures in our history? Have these beliefs changed, and if so, how? What contemporary visions of American citizenship might have the most profound future ramifications and why?

This module is a systematic exploration of the above essential questions that utilizes class discussion and reflection, primary source excerpts, and historical fiction. It only scratches the surface of this important subject.


Students will:

Demonstrate an understanding of various definitions of citizenship.

Utilize primary source excerpts from American schoolbooks to understand what children were taught about good citizenship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Compare and contrast how American schools and our culture define what constitutes a “good citizen” now and what might be expected of good citizens in the future. 

Investigate and explore the idea of citizenship through reading Edward Everett Hale’s short story "The Man Without a Country" and utilize the related workshop available on the website WhatSoProudlyWeHail .

Prerequisite knowledge

The model was written to enable students to gain knowledge appropriate for understanding citizenship in general, and American citizenship in particular. The assumption is that students will have had no prior experience with any of the primary sources. However, there is an expectation that students have basic familiarity with the concept of “citizenship” and an elemental understanding of terms such as republic, voting, rights, and duties.

Module introduction: Exploring the Concept of Citizenship (class one)

At the beginning of the first class, have students in one to three sentences define citizenship in their own words. Then, lead a whole-class discussion where students both discuss their respective definitions and think more deeply about the concept of citizenship through addressing the following questions:

Do definitions, qualifications, and expected actions of citizenship and citizen action differ depending on historical era or geographic place? If so, cite examples.

Do you think of yourself as a citizen of your school, community, or city? The U.S.? The world? All of the above? For any category you select, give specific examples of what a good citizen would believe or do.

Which level of citizenship do you consider most important? Why? Defend your answer.

At the conclusion of the introductory discussion, explain that the class will now investigate how many Americans have historically conceptualized citizenship and being a “good” American citizen, how the concept is perceived in the contemporary U.S., and how it might be perceived in the future (estimated time, fifteen minutes).

American Citizenship: Changing Definitions and Expectations?

Begin this discussion by providing students with a conventional definition of national citizenship.

A citizen is a person who possesses all the privileges and responsibilities granted by the law of a nation to residents who have legal status.

Briefly ask students for specific examples of privileges and responsibilities now granted to American citizens, and correct any factually erroneous student answers (estimated time, ten minutes).

Then, ask students to write a one- to two-sentence answer to the following question: Please cite any examples you know of how definitions of who is a U.S. citizen, or privileges granted to groups of Americans, have changed throughout our history?

Have students share their answers and correct any erroneous student answers. The expectation is at least some students will be aware of examples like African-Americans being granted citizenship and women being granted the right to vote (estimated time, fifteen minutes).

As a final activity for class one and a prelude for subsequent work with American primary source excerpts, begin with the following introduction or a similar one:

If our great-great-great grandparents were citizens in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century America, how would they answer this question: What were the values of the young Republic?

If one wants to understand a time period, one good place to start is to look at that time period’s schoolbooks; what were most children of an era commonly reading and learning together? Often what people collectively experience binds them together.

To help frame this idea, consider the following advice long ago from St. Augustine, who articulated one vision that is germane to national citizenship even though he used it in a different context:

Augustine asserted in his work City of God that in order to define a people, one should discover the “… loved things held in common. Then, if we wished to discern the character of any given people, we would have to investigate what it loves.… Surely it is a better or worse people as it is united in loving things that are better or worse.”

Then, have students in a “think, pair, share” activity with a partner consider what are the “loved things held in common” today by American citizens? First, students think silently and write down their answers, then compare lists with a partner (estimated time, five minutes). 

Facilitate a short whole-class discussion and write the most common items students identified on the board. Note the items in the list so that they can be discussed further in class No. 2 (estimated time, ten to twenty minutes).

End class one with a description of the homework assignment for class No. 2: The first paragraph linking Augustine’s comment about common learning to homework is especially important, but if possible, arouse student curiosity by using some or all of the short descriptions of the books read by so many American children in earlier times in our nation’s history (estimated time, three to five minutes).

To discover the “loved things held in common” by many citizens of the early Republic, we will look at examples of instruction and values common in the schooling of earlier Americans, from before the United States was even a country to the beginning of World War II. We will work with selections from the three most important schoolbooks for children that were widely used in earlier times; they provided a common learning for many Americans. For homework, you will investigate selections from each of these early schoolbooks. Remember Augustine’s advice—what are the “loved things held in common” by the early American citizens?

Primary source material descriptions:

 New England Primer

The New England Primer. Source: Wikipedia at

The New England Primer, first published in 1687 or 1688 and written by Benjamin Harris, a British journalist who immigrated to Boston, was highly popular through the first few decades of the nineteenth century. It was the most popular schoolbook in the English colonies and the early Republic for over 150 years and served as the foundation of most schooling before the 1790s.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster. Source: Wikipedia at

Webster’s Blue-Back Speller, first published in 1783 by prominent New England American educator and statesman Noah Webster, eclipsed The New England Primer as one of the most important schoolbooks in America during the 1800s. Educational historian Lawrence indicated millions of copies were published during much of the nineteenth century, and even Chief Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee alphabet and a written language, used the Speller as a model.

William McGuffey

William McGuffey. Source: Wikipedia at

College President William McGuffey first created textbooks for different grades, known as McGuffey’s Readers, in 1836 in Oxford, Ohio. Between 1836 and 1870, forty-seven million copies of the series were sold, and successive editions of McGuffey’s Readers remained popular for almost half of the twentieth century.

Distribute "The Formation of Citizens" worksheet and the primary source excerpts.

Note: All materials for this module incuding primary source excerpts, worksheets, and the Puritan Values Survey are available at this link.

Module: American Citizenship Then, Now, and the Future? (class two)

Give the short quiz "U.S. Citizenship: Historical Documents" and briefly provide students with correct answers (estimated time, ten to fifteen minutes) 

Review Augustine’s metric with the class and then ask the following question:

As you completed your primary source-based homework, did you find similarities or differences in what early Americans were taught to love (what educators expected would bind them together)?

Use student answers from the "Formation of Citizens" worksheet to create a list on the whiteboard of common expectations of knowledge, skills, and values for early citizens.

In the discussion, help students understand the following key points:

Since most American children for hundreds of years learned by using these books, we can deduce from them many common values educators and political leaders historically thought appropriate to teach the nation’s children.

Reframe what follows into a question (what other book or books do you think Americans in past times commonly read?) designed to assist students to think about how changing American cultural values affect contemporary and future beliefs about citizenship, or share the following observation with students:

In early American instruction, the King James Bible was the most widely used book in schools for literacy instruction.

Make students aware that increasing cultural pluralism, particularly shortly before and after the Civil War, meant that by the middle of the nineteenth century, controversies were already beginning to occur in newly emerging public schools about the Protestant Bible’s use—particularly if Catholics and Jews attended specific public schools. The controversies about religion in the public schools continually expanded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for various reasons (incorporation of the theory of evolution in science courses, immigration of peoples from other areas than western and northern Europe) and resulted in the controversial Supreme Court prayer decisions (Murray v. Curlett 1963 was the most famous) where the nation’s highest court interpreted the religion Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as banning government at any level, including public (local government) schools from endorsing any specific religion or making religious instruction part of the formal curriculum. (Students should understand that Supreme Court bans on government schools teaching religion do not extend to public schools teaching about religion and do not prevent private schools from teaching religion.) In the 1990 Board of Education v. Mergens case, the Supreme Court also affirmed the right of public school students to exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of religion at school through forming extracurricular religious clubs (estimated time, seven to ten minutes).

Use student responses to begin to create a column on the whiteboard titled "What Knowledge, Skills, and Values Contemporary Citizens Should Hold in Common."

The objective of the final discussion for class two is not for students to reach consensus but for serious reflection about what contemporary beliefs and developments constitute American citizenship and what might be done to strengthen civic education. 

Begin discussion with the following discussion statement:

In the contemporary U.S., list examples of common knowledge, values, and skills that most Americans agree are critical for good citizenship.

The ensuing discussion is intended to be open-ended to a certain extent, but teachers might wish to pose some of the following questions or utilize additional follow-up activities that are juxtaposed by select questions.

What common content about American history and government is most important for American citizens to know, in your opinion?

Teaching toleration of different beliefs has been particularly emphasized in most of the nation’s schools the past fifty to sixty years. What are possible positive and negative effects on citizenship because of the strong emphasis on teaching tolerance?

How can schools teach children to both care about their nation, state, and community, and strive for personal achievement? Is teaching the latter value even important for good citizenship; why or why not?

Is the cultivation of good character essential for good citizenship? Most (almost 90 percent) of American students attend public schools, where explicit religious instruction is illegal. Can good character be taught without explicit religious instruction either in schools or the home? Why or why not? Is it possible to teach about religion in public schools without teaching religion? (see three extension activities)*

Numerous media interviews with random people indicate that many citizens don’t have basic knowledge of how our government works; perhaps the most famous of many surveys a few years ago indicated that the sample of respondents knew more about the TV show The Simpsons than the Bill of Rights:

The framers of our Constitution believed that representative government where ordinary citizens were given the right to vote was impossible without a critical mass of educated citizens. How might civic education be improved, in your opinion? (estimated time, ten to fifteen minutes)

In preparation for class three, distribute or provide the link of "The Man Without a Country" by Edward Everett Hale and assign it to students to read for homework. Explain to students that often works of fiction can impart values or messages to readers that are important insights on many aspects of human life, including politics and citizenship. Just because a story is fiction doesn’t mean it is not “true.” Share the brief synopsis of the story with students (estimated time, five minutes).

This short story by American author Edward Everett Hale, first published in 1863, tells the story of an American Army lieutenant, Philip Nolan. The story begins with Mr. Nolan on trial for treason. In the midst of the trial, Mr. Nolan renounces his country. The judge determines that the appropriate punishment would be to ban him from the United States indefinitely. More than that, however, Mr. Nolan is confined to an American warship and is not allowed to ever read or hear a word about his abandoned country. As the story unfolds, we watch how being without a country affects Mr. Nolan.

Instructors might also want to ask that students watch a conversation with Professor Wilfred McClay on "The Man Without a Country." The conversation with McClay is available at What So Proudly We Hail.

Module: Reflections on Citizenship through Literature (class three)

First, without discussing important themes in the story, make sure that students comprehended the plot through asking questions like what happened to Nolan and why? What was his sentence? What were the major events in the story after Nolan began to serve his sentence? How does the story end?

Then, move to more reflective questions:

What appealed to you about the story? Why?

What did you not like about the story? Why? 

Do you think few, some, or many Americans your age generally would or would not like this story? Why?

Was Nolan’s punishment appropriate? Do you think a similar punishment should be used today for a citizen convicted of treason?

What do you think of Hale’s description of a man no longer attached to a country? Do you find it appealing or convincing? Why or why not? (estimated time, fifty minutes).


Students will be assessed on the knowledge and/or skills gained from the module in three ways:

"U.S. Citizenship: Historical Documents" short quiz at the beginning of the second class. The quiz is designed to reflect the student’s engagement in the homework assignment.

Active participation, largely based on the extent and quality of the student’s verbal interaction with his or her peers and the instructor during classes.

The homework assignment “The Formation of Citizens.” This assessment will enable the instructor to detect the student's comprehension level with regard to the primary source documents.

Enrichment/alternative activities*

The topic of citizenship is so complex that interested instructors might wish to enrich understanding through using the following three activities.

The Puritan Values Exercise

Note: The Puritan value survey may be downloaded here.

Without using the term “Puritan,” have students complete a short “values survey” (URL) where they agree, disagree, or check undecided regarding whether teachers should promote twelve values.

Once the class completes the surveys, indicate that the authors of a highly popular college-level American educational history text trace all the values in the survey back to our Puritan heritage. Then, share this following quotation from the text with students:

"Without making a judgment about these values, it may be pointed out that teaching them creates certain problems. Ours is a multicultural society in which minority and ethnic groups differ in the emphasis they place on traditional values of the majority culture." Pulliam and Van Patten

Conclude this activity through asking the following questions:

When you took the values survey, did you think at all about the Puritans?

Did you associate the values in the survey with Christianity?

Do only Caucasian Americans who are Christians believe these values?

(If students don’t make this point, instructors are encouraged to indicate that Japanese, Taiwanese, and many Chinese are not Christian but make these values part of their daily lives. The same is also true of many Americans who are not Caucasian.)

Instructors might ask students whether these values are Puritan values or middle-class values.

Citizenship and Morality: Illustrations of the Tao Exercise

Many educators are familiar with C. S. Lewis from his children’s books and popular books on Christianity. However, in 1943, Lewis wrote one book on education titled The Abolition of Man. Lewis’s central assertion in the book is that because of natural law, there are objective moral values shared by many cultures that in the twentieth century were continually attacked by moral relativists. In the appendix of Lewis’s short book, he listed moral rules of behavior that were historically shared by many religions and belief systems.

Examples include prohibitions against murder, hatred, and doing to others what you would not like them to do to you. Share excerpts from the appendix of The Abolition of Man (available at

Ask students to discuss whether it is possible to teach and model these values in schools without religious instruction.

Humility and American Citizenship

In 2013, Dr. David Bobb, president of The Bill of Rights Institute, published the book Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue. His work is an historically based argument for the role of the virtue of humility in contributing to the profound success of the United States as a nation 

Have students watch Bobb’s fifty-one-minute lecture ( based on his book and react to what they learn about the virtues of humility, leadership, and citizenship.

References and Resources and are full-text of volumes 1 and 2 of The City of God by St. Augustine. is a short essay about The New England Primer by Samuel J. Smith of Liberty University from 2008. This is a link to The New England Primer by Benjamin Harris that was reprinted in 1899 by The University Press (edited by Paul Leicester Ford). This is a link to Noah Webster’s Blue-Back Speller, printed in Boston by Isaiah Thomas and Ebenezer T. Andrews, 1970. This is a PDF copy of the third-grade McGuffey’s Readers by William McGuffey, published in 1901. This is a link to an NBC News story on how many Americans know more about The Simpsons than they do about the Bill of Rights. From the American literature website What So Proudly We Hail, the “National Identity and Why It Matters” curriculum unit includes the text of “The Man Without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale and a video lecture on the story by Wilfred McClay.

John D. Pulliam and James J. Van Patten, History of Education in America, 7th edition: Source for the content of the values survey and the quotation that precedes questions to students. This link includes the full text of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, including "The Law of General Beneficence" and "The Law of Mercy" excerpts from the book’s appendix. This is a lecture by David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, on his book Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue. 

Lawrence A. Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876: This book, published in 1980, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and is considered the definitive source on educational history of this period.