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Folkways in American History

I learned a new word today:

“folkways.”

According to dictionary.com, Folkways are, “the ways of living, thinking, and acting in a human group, built up without conscious design but serving as compelling guides of conduct.”

Tindhall and Shi spend a bit of time talking about it in their book, America: A Narrative History.

It was long assumed that the strenuous demands of the American frontier environment served as a great “melting pot” that stripped such immigrants of their native identities and melded them into homogeneous Americans. But it was not that simple. For all of the transforming effects of the New World, the persistence of disparate British ways of life was remarkable. Although most British settlers spoke a common language and shared the Protestant faith, they were in fact diverse people who carried with them — and retained — sharply different cultural attitudes and customs from their home regions. They spoke distinct dialects. cooked different foods, named and raised their children differently, adopted divergent educational philosophies and attitudes toward time, built their houses in contrasting architectural styles, engaged in disparate games and forms of recreation and organized their societies differently.

As we teach American history, I think it is important to remember that the “melting pot” metaphor is insufficient to really describe the diversity of “American” experiences. While we want to be seen as the land where you can give us “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, … ” we must also remember that there is more than one way to breathe freely.

There is a tendency that I sometimes feel to make all of American history fit into a box of accepted paradigms and norms, but American history doesn’t always fit nicely inside of a box. I would like to take this moment to remember next year to allow for diversity of opinions within my historical thinking, but also to allow a diversity of student opinions without simply shutting them down.

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