Essential Questions in American History: “The Great Debates”

I developed this series as part of my work with Prentice-Hall supporting Daniel Boorstin’s A History of the United States.

Originally it was suggested that I develop lessons on questions such as “Should slavery be extended into the territories?” I argued that most of these issues had been answered, and that it would be more engaging to frame the debates around essential questions. Thus the typical question – “Should the Constitution be ratified?” became “How powerful should the national government be?” Anyone following the reauthorization of NCLB or the proposed health care legislation knows the enduing relevance of that question.

The Great Debates feature consists of twelve debates, one for every unit of the text. Each of these debates contains an introduction that states the topic of the debate, examines the background of this issue, provides information about both the readings and the debaters, and discusses the debate topic from a contemporary perspective. Units feature the conflicting viewpoints of two or more historical figures or organizations and a worksheet that helps students analyze the debate through a series of comprehension and critical thinking questions. Download all Great Debates here

Essential questions / debates include:

Debate  1: How Should Society Balance the Need for Tolerance with the Need to Protect Itself?
Debate  2: How Powerful Should the National Government Be?
Debate  3: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?
Debate  4: Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?
Debate  5: How Should Americans Treat the Land?
Debate  6: Has Industrialization Produced More Benefits or More Problems for the Nation?
Debate  7: Should the United States Pursue a Foreign Policy of Isolationism or Interventionism?
Debate  8: What Should the Nation’s Immigration Policy Be?
Debate  9: To What Extent Is the Federal Government Responsible for the Welfare and Security of the Individual?
Debate 10: Is Civil Disobedience Ever Justified as a Method of Political Change?
Debate 11: What Are the Limits of a Free Press?
Debate 12: How Much Should the Nation Invest in Defense?

12 Replies to “Essential Questions in American History: “The Great Debates””

  1. I love the reframing of these questions. Just about to do Constitutional Convention and will use the “How Powerful” question instead. Thanks!

  2. I applaud your efforts to reframe the questions we ask as educators. I have a background in Expeditionary Learning and was taught to always frame learning objectives within the context of an “essential question” similar to the ones you list above. These questions are meant to take the students beyond a cursory exploration of the topic, leading them to generate their own questions and (sometimes) answers. That being said, I think the debate called “Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law?” misses the mark. Strictly speaking, under the LAW, women do have equal treatment, the essential question here is “Why Aren’t Women Treated Equally in our Society?” or “Do Women Deserve Equal Treatment in our Society?”

  3. I think I should clarify my last reply. All of your reframed questions (except #4) are relevant both in historical AND contemporary contexts. Question #4, as stated, is really only relevant in a historical context and not in a modern one since modern U.S. Law does see women as equals.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Cory,

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions. I agree that might not have been the best way to frame debate #4.

    The project was an interesting puzzle – create 12 great debates, introduce them as an essential question, link them to the 12 units of Boorstin’s History, and support them with one page of documents that frame the debate.

    I knew i should pose questions on big issues like – gender, race, class, environment, gov’t power, etc. Since most of these questions are enduring ones, I had to decide which historic era to “ask” them in. For example, do you pose a question on gender during the reform era, push for suffrage, modern era? Does a foreign policy question best emerge in context of imperialism, 20th c neutrality debates, Cold war. Keep in mind only one debate per unit of the book – in a sense they competed with each other.

    As you can imagine it was quite a intellectual challenge – compounded by a one-debate per week production deadline!

  5. This is *great*. I could see using this for essays, philosophical chairs, debate, etc. Thank you for posting. I think this approach is much more meaningful and engaging for students. It forces those higher level thinking skills.

  6. TeacherMom,

    I’m glad you think the Great Debates are “great.” Students are more engaged when we frame the discussions in ways that have enduring relevance to their lives.


  7. I was looking at these essential questions and comparing them with the scope and sequence of our state (Washington). How would you go about adapting these essential questions to the period content since the 1910s (or Twenties because I am starting there next year).

  8. Hi Stephen,

    A good essential question has enduring qualities. It should work in any era. You could use some of the same question from the 19th century with new documents in the historic context of the 20th and 21st century. For example:
    Debate 2: How Powerful Should the National Government Be? Could be set during the New Deal.
    Debate 4: Should Women Have Equal Treatment Under the Law? Could be set during the debate over the 19th Amendment

    Best of luck with the project,

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