Lesson Plans for Secondary Educators

Theodore Roosevelt, The Man with the Muck-Rake, April 14, 1906

High School Lesson Plan created for Voices of Democracy by Michael J. Steudeman, University of Maryland

Click here for the VOD unit corresponding to this lesson plan.

Value to History Teachers

In political science and communication studies, Theodore Roosevelt is said to have ushered in a “rhetorical presidency.” More than leaders before him, he spoke directly to the people and press to push his agenda. This speech exhibits several key concepts that come to the fore during 9th and 10th grade students’ explorations of American history:

  • The relationship of the president to the press;
  • The growing strength of the national government during the Progressive era;
  • The importance of character to early-20th century reformers;
  • And the increasing role of investigative journalism in pursuing a Progressive agenda.

As one of the liveliest historical figures of the early 1900s, reading Roosevelt’s message and how he tethers together each of these issues provides a compelling way to deepen students’ understanding of a tumultuous period in American politics and reform.

Relevant Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.
    • Roosevelt relies heavily on two pieces of source material—John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and a variety of related Biblical messages. From this material, he crafts far-reaching religious metaphors that carry throughout the speech.
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details.
  • ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.3 Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.
    • Analyzing the central theme of Roosevelt’s speech requires students to carefully track his unfolding ideas. Roosevelt uses a method of reconciling opposing perspectives, outlining the virtues and benefits of “muckraking” but then quickly asserting their problematic influence when they undermine the character of good public figures and faith in public institutions. The speech addresses this theme through the creation of a logical syllogism connecting character, government, and journalism.
  • ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
    • Understanding Roosevelt’s address requires students’ immersion and appreciation of key aspects of historical context, including:
    • Character: How Roosevelt defined the virtues of strong character, “manhood,” and trustworthiness in public life;
    • Progressivism: The hopeful and social reform-oriented movement Roosevelt participated in and led as the president.
    • Journalism: Investigative journalism was emerging as a necessary tool for prompting government action and pubic outrage.

Ideas for Pre-Reading

  • The “Muck-Rake” character in Roosevelt’s speech is from the second part of John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Promise. To help students understand how Roosevelt drew from source material, have students read and analyze pages 25 to 26 of the book from Chapel Library online.
  • As they read, students must consider how the “muckrakers” who go too far destroy the character of public servants. To do this, they will also need context for Roosevelt’s views on character. Show students the monument to “Manhood” from Theodore Roosevelt Island to prompt their thinking about what character traits Roosevelt associated with good citizens.
  • Students should enter the speech knowing autobiographical background about Roosevelt’s strong personality: for example, his Rough Rider experience or the time he spoke for 90 minutes with a bullet in his chest.

Students need to understand the call for strong government that emerged during the Progressive Era. First, guide them to read the segment of Amy L. Heyse’s interpretive essay, pages 4-5, on the rise of investigative journalism and TR’s response. Supplement this with a class discussion about gruesome depictions of factory conditions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jacob Riis’s photojournalistic exposé of immigrant tenements in New York City.

Important Vocabulary/Ideas

  • Aristides [paragraph 5]: An Ancient Greek statesman known for justice in leadership.
  • The Panama Canal [paragraph 6]: Roosevelt refers to the massive and difficult project to secure workers for the canal-building project.
  • Progressive Tax [paragraph 16]: Roosevelt proposes to take higher taxes from those with larger incomes. Students should connect this to Progressive Era thought.
  • Amplification. In Roosevelt’s day, there was no amplification for sound. Because high-pitched voices carry further, TR he had a surprisingly un-macho voice by today’s standards.

Suggested Timeline / Objectives

Day 1: “The Man with the Muck-Rake”

  • [Read paragraphs 1-5]
  • Students will describe the two types of journalism practices that have emerged in the Progressive Era: investigative and sensationalistic.
  • Students will analyze how Roosevelt appropriates the “muck-rake” character from Bunyan to generate a metaphor about these two different types of journalism.

Day 2: The Cynicism of Muckraking

  • [Read paragraphs 6-13]
  • Students will determine Roosevelt’s stance on both the pros and cons of muckraking.
  • Students will analyze how Roosevelt believes sensationalistic journalism produces a cynicism about public servants and journalists alike.
  • Students will examine how Roosevelt establishes a syllogistic relationship between citizens of good character, strong reform government, and responsible journalism.

Day 3: Fortunes Well and Ill-Won

  • [Read paragraphs 14-23]
  • Students will continue to examine how Roosevelt establishes the syllogistic relationship between character, reform, and journalism.
  • Students will describe Roosevelt’s stance on the progressive tax and fortunes, and analyze how it fits into the overall logical syllogism that forms his speech.

Key During Reading Passages and Discussion Questions

  • Paragraph 1: To begin his speech, Roosevelt uses the cornerstone of a new federal building as a metaphor for the expanding power of the government. Students should relate this metaphor to the context of Roosevelt’s strong leadership in Progressive Era reform.
  • Paragraphs 2-3: This is the most famous passage of Roosevelt’s speech, and the source of “muckraking” as an analogy. Dedicate a lot of time to this passage.
    • Through a series of questions about early-1900s modes of transportation, prime students to think about what a “muck-raker” does (cleans up horse manure).
    • In pairs or on their own, have students parse out the two factors the “muck-raker” is torn between: the “vile and debasing” muck and the “celestial crown.”
  • Paragraphs 4-6: As Roosevelt defines what he means by “muck-raking,” tie in to students’ prior knowledge of both tabloid journalism (TMZ, celebrity gossip) and the rumor mill at their school. How are these problematic?
  • Days 2 and 3 (Tracing Roosevelt’s Ideas): Students will need guidance to understand how the economic discussion of the “haves and have-nots” fits into the broader logic of the speech. Have students convert his speech into a logical syllogism:
    • Major Premise: Good citizens are necessary to combat the forces of greed and to uphold progressive government.
    • Minor Premise: Journalism that goes too far discourages good citizens from public service and blinds us to them.
    • Conclusion: Therefore, journalists should moderate their attacks on public figures and only critique them truthfully. The audience probably accepts the major premise about the role of good citizens in government, so Roosevelt dedicates more time to his minor premise and conclusion about the reform of journalism.
  • Paragraph 17: To reach the Day 3 Objectives, this paragraph clearly and lucidly lays out Roosevelt’s position: that the National Government (consisting of noble public servants) has an important role to play in regulating corporate wealth. Prompt students to consider how this relates to the larger argument of the speech: how does this argument underscore the need for journalists to avoid overzealously attacking political leaders?
  • Paragraph 23: Roosevelt eventually returns to the “foundation stone” metaphor to conclude the speech. How does the idea of the citizen as a “foundation stone” strengthen the opening metaphor?

Ideas for Post-Reading and Assessment (English and History)

  • Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Students have been commissioned by The New York Times to write a Code of Ethics that responds to Theodore Roosevelt’s address. The Code of Ethics must demonstrate that students understand both the benefits of investigative journalism and the dangers of sensationalism, as outlined by Roosevelt (RL.9-10.2; RI.9-10.3). Students must then discuss how the “Code” would help them make ethical decisions in covering the excesses and greed Progressive Era reformers sought to fix (Literacy.RH.9-10.4).
  • TR Critiques Modern Muckrakers. As students read, have them extrapolate Roosevelt’s key ideas regarding the proper conduct of journalism with integrity. Afterward, have students look up examples of contemporary investigative reporting—both ethical (for example, the previous year’s recipients of the Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards) and unethical (for instance, from supermarket tabloids or cable news coverage). Have students write about these articles from Roosevelt’s point of view, subjecting them to the same analysis and reasoning Roosevelt used in his address (RL.9-10.2; RI.9-10.3).