To explore America’s past in a meaningful way, a growing number of educators strive for spirited debate and passionate discussion in their classrooms. The key is get students talking about historical events with the same energy and immediacy that today’s topics provoke. But accomplishing that is virtually impossible without the right catalyst.
This collection of 25 concise video clips is designed to spark thoughtful, productive dialogue on major turning points in U.S. history. Each clip lays out two opposing viewpoints, framing a complex historical episode as if it were a debatable “issue”—just as citizens of the time might have thought and argued about it.
In some cases, such as the segments on Jamestown or the Salem witch trials, the debate echoes scholarly disagreements that exist today. Other clips relate directly to hot-button issues our society still wrestles with, such as the role of unions or the teaching of evolution—while a handful of equally powerful segments resurrects arguments that were decided long ago, so that students can freely explore their causes and contexts.
Each clip has a run time of approximately 2 minutes, 30 seconds. Topics include:
• Columbus’s Voyages to the New World: How should his legacy be assessed? Was Columbus a ruthless invader or a bold, innovative explorer?
• Transatlantic Slave Trade: How was the world’s most inhumane practice viewed in earlier centuries? Why did it begin and why was it tolerated for so long?
• Jamestown Settlement: Why did the first permanent English settlement in America flounder? Was collectivism to blame?
• Salem Witch Trials: Did the witch hunts spring from a genuine belief in witchcraft or were other sociological factors at work?
• Slavery and the American Revolution: Did the American Revolution significantly change the condition and status of black Americans?
• Constitutional Convention: Did the compromises that took place in 1787 get it right? Did we effectively balance a strong national government with states’ rights?
• Indian Removal: Was the Indian Removal Act of 1830 the best way to end violent conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers?
• Amistad Revolt: What should the U.S. have done with the Africans who revolted aboard the schooner Amistad? Was morality involved, or was it a purely legal decision?
• Mexican-American War: Was the conflict a justified response to Mexican aggression or an unscrupulous land grab?
• Secession of the Southern States: Preserve the Union or allow a self-determining Confederate nation to form—what was the right course to take?
• Reconstruction: In the aftermath of the Civil War, America faced the difficult task of bringing rebellious states back into the fold. Was it accomplished in the right way?
• Rise of Organized Labor: Unions and collective bargaining—were they noble crusades for workers’ rights or a threat to U.S. industry?
• Chinese Exclusion Act: Was the legislation enacted to protect American workers or can it only be described as an overtly racist policy?
• Spanish-American War: Was the war an imperialist adventure or a humanitarian conflict?
• Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902: Should President Roosevelt have taken control of Pennsylvania’s anthracite mines? Can the federal government nationalize an industry in a time of crisis?
• League of Nations: What were the pros and cons of U.S. membership? Should America have joined the League?
• Scopes Trial: Teaching evolution in Tennessee—should intellectual freedom trump a state-mandated curriculum?
• New Deal: Did the Social Security Act lift people out of poverty or undermine American capitalism?
• Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Were the attacks a horrifying example of mass destruction, or were they morally justifiable given that they represented a quick end to the war?
• Brown v. Board of Education: Did the Supreme Court have the authority to force states to end segregation in public schools?
• Cuban Missile Crisis: To what extent should the U.S. have used force to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba?
• Space Race: Did the U.S. have its priorities right when it aimed for a manned lunar mission? Could American resources have been better spent?
• Feminist Movement: Can the decades-old debate over the Equal Rights Amendment be reduced to simple pros and cons? If the ERA had been ratified, would American society be any different today?
• DDT Ban: Do the economic and industrial benefits of a new technology outweigh the potential threats it poses to the environment?
• Afghanistan War: Following the 9/11 attacks, what was the appropriate level of response? Was regime change necessary in Afghanistan?
A Films for the Humanities & Sciences Production. (65 minutes)