Please tuck that troubling little “factoid” in the back of your mind while I tell you a story about a good friend of mine who was recently asked to speak to a class of middle school students about discoveries he has made while researching a book he is writing on World War II.
In preparation for speaking to the class, my friend wrestled with how to reach the students. “This generation is 65 chronological years and a million ‘thought years’ removed from World War II,” he said. “How do I get across the ultimate cost of this involvement [in the war]?”
He settled on something simple but vivid.
When he set up the classroom on the day he was to speak, my friend placed an empty seat on the front row. After opening up with a few comments, he drew the students’ attention to the empty seat and told them that there should have been someone sitting in that seat. He asked if they knew why. No one answered.
“That seat is vacant,” he said, “because the great grandfather of the student who was to occupy it was killed in World War II.”
The class went silent and remained so for the following 50 minutes of the presentation. And over the subsequent couple of weeks, my friend – as well as many veterans and the families of deceased veterans – received letters from the students expressing their gratitude for the price others had paid for their freedom and rights.
That is a compelling picture of why history matters. And it’s brings us back to why the first statement in this column is so troubling.
According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – which measures the progress of fourth, eighth and twelfth graders –just 20 percent of fourth graders, 17 percent of eighth graders, and 12 percent of twelfth graders were performing at or above the proficient level when it came to knowing their U.S. history.
George Santayana, an American philosopher of a century ago, famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I would add this: you can’t understand or appreciate the present if you don’t understand and appreciate the past.
If you don’t know anything about human rights abuses and religious persecution in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, you can’t understand why our First Amendment rights were considered by our Founders to be the highest (hence, the “first”) priorities among the rights to be enshrined in the Bill of Rights. And you can’t understand why those rights still matter today.
If you don’t know about slavery and Jim Crow laws, you can’t understand race relations today. (Interestingly enough, if you don’t know about the role that faith played in shaping the thinking and tactics of nineteenth century abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe or twentieth century civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, you can’t understand the importance of the First Amendment in the 21st century.)
Time and space naturally constrain any sort of detailed cataloging of the links between various events of the past with conditions and events of today. But I think there is another reason why knowing history matters and it’s tied to the response that was elicited from those middle school students when my friend talked to them about World War II and personal sacrifice – gratitude.
In an age of entitlement in which increasing numbers of people feel that they have the “right” to luxuries and pleasures that have eluded previous generations and most other cultures, lessons from history remind us to be grateful for what we have and worry less about what we don’t have.
Names like Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower and King, places like Yorktown, Gettysburg, Normandy, Selma, and “Ground Zero”, and agonizing periods like The Great Depression and the Holocaust all tell the compelling story of sacrifices made by others who came before us.
But with so few of our students learning and understanding history to the degree that they should, it ought to come as no surprise to us if we, as a nation, are terribly deficient in both our understanding of current events and our sense of gratitude for what we have.
Georgia Family Council is a non-profit research and education organization committed to fostering conditions in which individuals, families and communities thrive. For more information, go to www.georgiafamily.org, (770) 242-0001, email@example.com.