Teaching Magna Carta in American History: Land, Law, and Legacy
By David W. Saxe
The History Teacher, Vol. 43:3 (2010)
Introduction: Magna Carta, that great cornerstone of American liberty, has been in the news lately. Put up for sale by three-time U.S. Presidential candidate Ross Perot in December 2007, the 1297 version of Magna Carta displayed in the National Archives was sold to financier David Rubenstein for $21.3 million.1 While its sale demonstrates the cash value of the document as a national treasure, it is debatable whether or not Magna Carta retains much currency in our nation’s classrooms.
As with other seminal elements of the history curriculum, when given the opportunity, teachers must not only make the commitment to teach a particular topic, but also to lead the way in demonstrating the value of their curricular choices. Magna Carta is, of course, the seminal document which America’s founders referred to as that “Great Charter of liberty.” With the 800-year anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015, a scant five years away, it is perhaps timely for teachers to pause and reflect on what the document has meant for the Western world and on how they might use Magna Carta in their classrooms. In more conspicuous terms, this article is also designed to stimulate educators to use Magna Carta and other seminal works and episodes of history to articulate the curricular importance of history in our schools.
Magna Carta and its thirteenth-century participants are of another world, a supposed English world where Latin and French summed the languages of scholarship and Norman government; a world 800 years ago on another continent some 3,000 miles away from America. To our modern sensibilities, of what possible use can this document be to those of the twenty-first century with our digital cameras, artificial sweeteners, and laser-guided surface-to-air missiles? Still, whether educators and citizens know it or not, Magna Carta has been irrevocably woven into our modern society.
In supposing the importance of Magna Carta to our American culture, it may appear incongruent to consider a more systematic study of Magna Carta at a time when many teachers are conflicted on how to maintain any history as a school subject. Nonetheless, despite the unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind that seemingly favor math and reading at the expense of history and other social studies, this article will attempt to demonstrate that teachers ought to consider ways to bring Magna Carta into focus for our students. Perhaps, in demonstrating that past is prologue, they may establish that there is more to schooling than scoring well on standardized tests.
Leaving the curricular politics for another venue, I invite readers to consider the place Magna Carta holds in American heritage. My aim is not to demonstrate without flinch or pause that Magna Carta brought us to this day, or that Magna Carta is the “mother ship” of liberty, but rather to explore how Magna Carta was woven into the American fabric.