A guest speaker in my class today extolled the many virtues of Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” As she did so I was glad that I had taught at least part of the text earlier in the year. The course is a senior year rhetoric course and I was relying on the students’ prior American History schooling to provide the complete text and context.
But as I was thinking, I came to wonder why I had not read the letter until started reading the history of the Civil Rights movement on my own after college. I think it fell into the high school American history gap that exists between the end of the course and modern day events. This gap is usually around 20 years long and the entire Civil Rights movement fell into the gap when I was in high school. What is odder is that I was a history major in college, concentrating in American History and I still did not read it. That may have been a result of the college’s fairly loose departmental requirements and lack of survey courses a combination which resulted in my taking great courses in American Indian history and Early Colonial history but no 20th Century American history (and no Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or Revolutionary War either).
I wonder if there are any essential historical texts one absolutely should read in high school? I would tend to vote for the documents that are immediately useful in terms of laying out the rights and responsibilities of citizens. That list begins with the Constitution, but I cannot think of other absolutely necessary editions. A document like Letter From Birmingham Jail is certainly enlightening, but does it have qualities that make it a piece everyone should read?