In many ways, the most powerful emotional, political and civic experience of SXSW EDU was a screening of American Creed, followed by a discussion with Sam Ball, the film’s director, as well as Deidre Prevett and Tegan Griffith, two of the people it profiles, and moderated by Anne Burt from Facing History and Ourselves. It’s a PBS documentary framed by two high profile Stanford faculty members—David M. Kennedy and Condoleeza Rice—and their consideration of what it means to be American. The emotional impact, though, comes from the moving portraits of a wide range of American citizens, from high profile literary, sports and industry superstars to an enlisted Marine and an elementary school principal. Coming from all corners of the nation (and the world) and telling all manner of story, these portraits each offer an important perspective on American identity and its many fractures, pitfalls and challenges.
Underlying the stories is the anxiety—voiced by both Rice and Kennedy—that we’re crossing some critical threshold beyond which we’ll cease to share enough of a national mythology, and we’ll tip from elevating a dream to tearing down an illusion. The documentary’s content was intended to recover this dream, even when it couldn’t be entirely separated from the wreckage around it. There were significant omissions—most notable, the African-American experience in northern cities—and the upward (and uplifting) trajectory of the documentary’s subjects was clearly unevenly distributed. But Ball was unapologetic about his documentary’s optimism. To him, the task went beyond reportage; the documentary is intended injecting life into a productive, generative conversation about our shared identity and our intertwined fate. In this, he succeeds beautifully. Moreover, Facing History and Ourselves , the National Writing Project, and PBS LearningMedia have created a set of curricular materials and publishing and sharing platforms to guide deeper explorations, connect learners and their creations, and offer an enduring, interactive record of an ongoing national conversation.
Ultimately, it’s these efforts that make this more than a powerful documentary. In their teacher-centric curricular materials and a platform for student creation, these partners offer more than just ancillary activities: inasmuch as learning happens in the messy process of creation, connection and dialogue, watching the film is only the beginning of the process rather than a destination. Indeed, the National Writing Project’s open, online youth publishing platform offers a glimpse into the way technology can enable connected learning, scale innovative curricula like this, and transform a passive viewing experience into a transformative, communal learning experience.