Argentinian Immigrant Teaches Students Why America's Constitution Works
September 6, 2022
“I am an idealist when it comes to American ideals,” says Gabriella Townsend, who teaches American history at Benold Middle School in Georgetown, Texas. “We have a system that backs our ideals up.” Townsend brings an immigrant’s perspective to the constitutionally guaranteed rights many other Americans take for granted. A seminar on the American Revolution in Ashbrook’s summer residential Master’s program in American History and Government helped her think about how those rights were secured—and the task of preserving them.
Townsend attended Ashbrook’s graduate program as a Buchwald Fellow. She learned about the program while stealing a few moments during a planning period to research professional development opportunities. Seeing that it featured close study of primary documents—an aspect of her own teaching she’d been asked by her school district to develop—she immediately applied for a fellowship to cover her first seminar.
Seizing Opportunities to Travel and Learn
Born in Argentina, Townsend first entered the US on a student visa, pursuing a degree in city planning at New Mexico State University. She married an American whose engineering career took her to Michigan, where she completed a Master’s program in developmental psychology and began teaching the subject as an adjunct at Wayne State University. She completed the naturalization process, then traveled to Russia to adopt a son, although she was already a mother to twin daughters. The adoption process was complicated—“but when you have such opportunities, you have to take them,” Townsend said. Later, when her husband’s work took him to China, she accompanied him with the children. “How could I say no to China?” she explained.
Later she moved to Florida, where her then twelve-year-old daughters were offered places in a tennis academy. That’s when she began teaching history, at a private high school in Boca Raton. When her daughters won tennis scholarships to Texas A & M University, she moved with them and began her current work as a public middle school teacher.
Learning From Others While Pursuing One’s Own Question
“I never told Professor Stevens this, but his course was the first American history class I ever took,” Townsend said. “Ironically, my undergraduate degree at New Mexico State didn’t require any American history.” She read history in her spare time because she loved it. “That’s why I was interested in Ashbrook’s graduate program. As much as I had learned on my own, it’s good to learn from others.”
Townsend brought a “high intrinsic motivation” to the seminar on the Revolution. She wanted to understand “why the American Revolution worked so well here in the US, so much better than” democratic revolutions in Latin America. This question, she said, “is always nagging me.”
She has no memory of the military dictatorship that governed Argentina when she was small. Instead, she remembers a “mostly” democratic society haunted by memories of the “disappeared”—citizens seized and presumably killed because of their suspected sympathy with left-wing opposition groups. In its unstable political culture, Argentina is hardly unique among Latin American countries. “Many Latin American countries declared their independence within decades of the American Revolution,” Townsend notes, and “most have constitutions similar to that of the US, because they copied ours.” Yet they have struggled to maintain their democracies.
The format of the seminar helped Townsend pursue her question. Expecting lectures, she found discussions. “When Stevens walked into the classroom on Sunday, he looked at the arrangement of desks and said, ‘This is not going to work.’ He asked us to rearrange the desks in a circle. At first, it didn’t make sense—but then it did. Most of what I learned in that class came from those discussions with other teachers.”
The Ideals of the Revolution
It also helped that Stevens’ course emphasized the political thought of the revolutionary generation. “Who won what battle” mattered less to her inquiry than “what the ideals of the Revolution were and still are.
“We talked a lot about our unalienable rights and the self-evident truth that Jefferson taught us in the Declaration. I had never really thought what it meant to say something was self-evident.” This was a truth America’s Founders had discovered through reading books about political life and talking together about them. They realized that human equality was the only logical basis for a system of free elections, in which every person’s vote is worth every other person’s. Once they grasped this idea, it became undeniable. “There was no turning back,” Gabriella said. They had to go forward, fighting for their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
No other government of the time recognized this truth, and many today still do not. “Latin Americans might talk about unalienable rights,” Townsend said; “it doesn’t mean they understand what this means.” Trying not “to judge too harshly or too easily,” she hypothesized that the instability in Latin American political institutions arose from the inadequate “education of the people.”
Education to Preserve Democracy
Even in the US, education in American ideals must be continually renewed, a process the Founders called cultivating “moral virtue” in the citizenry, Professor Stevens explained. He “very eloquently said that the American Revolution is in the hands of American history teachers because if we don’t teach students to value what they have, we could lose it.”
Townsend knows the American system works. Twenty years ago, she ran into a wall while adopting her son. Although she produced naturalization papers proving her American citizenship, she did not yet have an American passport, causing Russian authorities to stop the process. She contacted her congressman, who “was not of the party I voted for,” and within a week the adoption was back on track. Her elected representative defended her interests.
Yet Townsend also knows few Americans understand that their freedoms are exceptional in human history. While teaching in Boca Raton, she asked her students to find news articles on political conditions in Venezuela. “We were in Florida, where people leaving Venezuela move, yet ninety percent of my students at the time—they were high school seniors—had no idea what was happening a few hundred miles away.” Reading the news stories, “their eyes opened. They‘d had no idea of the violations of human rights. Thirty years ago, Venezuela was a democratic country” with large oil reserves, “one of the most prosperous countries in South America. Yet today half the population is starving.”
The seminar impressed on Townsend her responsibility to help students “learn how we came to be” as a nation. “This year my goal will be to teach them to value the freedoms that they have, to learn about their basic rights” as enumerated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, and to “make sure they understand all of them—not just the 2nd amendment, which obviously is very popular here in Texas.” Because of the seminar, Townsend will use primary document excerpts to help her eighth-graders understand American ideals. “I already selected five documents for next year. Most are letters. One will be a letter from Jefferson talking about slavery.”
Of all facts of history, the fact that slaveholders proclaimed their belief in human equality most confounds students. During the seminar, Townsend concluded that the Founders knew an immediate attempt to abolish slavery would have doomed the Revolution. Southern colonies would not have joined the effort. “That’s one thing I actually learned in the class. That the colonies were united was probably the biggest advantage we had.” But accepting this reality is “hard for middle schoolers. We have to teach them that people are not all good or all bad.” This year, in addition to helping students understand Jefferson’s reference to self-evident truths, Townsend will show her students his original draft of the Declaration, which shows his keen awareness of the contradiction in which he and other American slaveholders were caught.
The Founders “did what they could and more, I think, than any other generation of Americans,” Townsend said. Preserving and perfecting this achievement is the task her students face.