by lyle e davis
In both high school and college I could take history, or leave it. I left it, mostly.
Much of it, I decided, was boring.
Later in life, I got interested in genealogy and managed to write four books in two years time. Genealogy is, literally, history.
Suddenly, history came alive. It became interesting. I researched and found out things I hadn’t known about a lot of things. And a lot of people.
Later, when I bought this paper I began to research articles and subject matter and write and rewrite stories for both the featured cover story as well as local news, gossip, and editorial opinion. I learned how much fun research can be . . . and how there are lots of facts not generally known.
Those teachers in our schools who have the ability to step out beyond the stereotypical history classes and teach our youngsters the exciting and colorful elements of our past, our present and our future, well, they’re the teachers I worship. They’re the teachers I believe should be paid $100,000 a year and up They make learning interesting and fun.
Recently, good friend Allen Jones, a former school mate who now lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, drew my attention to an essay written by William J. Bennett. There are a number of fascinating points Mr. Bennet makes. His esssay, “Our National Alienation & Amnesia,” begins with the premise the we are asking our children to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know. The essay was published this year on, not surprisingly, July 4th. Read, enjoy, and learn. Herein, excerpts from Mr.
Bennett’s essay. I have highlighted a number of areas I think are important to chew on:
Tens of millions of Americans are about to celebrate our nation’s Founding. The worrisome question is, will future generations take to this celebration the way we have for the past 231 years if they do not know the first, second, or third thing about their country?
Two years ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough told the U.S. Senate that American History was our nation’s worst subject in school. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (a.k.a., “our Nation’s Report Card”), released last month, bears that out again. Our children do worse in American history than they do in reading or math. McCullough testified we were facing the prospect of national amnesia, saying, “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.”
McCullough is right, and it is a double tragedy: a) our children no longer know their country’s history and b) the story they do not know is the greatest political story ever told.
It is not our children’s fault. Our country’s adults are expected to instill a love of country in its children, but the greatness and purpose of that country are mocked by the chattering classes: Newspaper columns and television reports drip with a constant cynicism about America while doubts about her motives on the world stage are the coin of the realm. Too many commentators are too ready to believe the worst about our leaders and our country, and our children’s history books — and even some of the teachers — close off any remaining possibility of helping children learn about their country.
Many of our history books are either too tendentious — disseminating a one-sided, politically correct view of the history of the greatest nation that ever existed; or, worse, they are boring — providing a watered down, anemic version of a people who have fought wars at home and abroad for the purposes of liberty and equality, conquered deadly diseases, and placed men on the moon.
Today, we have textbooks that give several chapters to Bill Clinton’s “reinventing government” theme but dismiss Dwight Eisenhower’s support of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 with a single sentence. Young Americans are likely to learn more about Eisenhower’s impact on the country by actually driving with their parents on an Interstate and seeing the signs by the roadside than by reading biased textbooks.
The National History Standards team completely missed the moon. They called for standards which emphasized Soviet gains in space in the 1960s and the American Challenger disaster in 1986, but they completely omitted any reference to the U.S. landing on the moon.
Historians of greater standing, like the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., pointed to the moon landing as the greatest event of the 20th century. It happens also to have been JFK’s greatest success. Schlesinger is right and the standards are wrong.
Yet none of the drama of the race to the moon is captured in textbooks today. Students are more likely to know about the failed Apollo XIII mission from the truly excellent Hollywood movie than they are to know that Astronaut Jim Lovell was also on the very successful Apollo 8 mission of 1968. President Johnson, alerted that the Soviets might try a loop-around the Moon and claim to have beaten us, ordered Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to make the hazardous journey. NASA told the astronaut wives their husbands’ chances of a safe return were only 50-50. Our astronauts circled the moon that year and read from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Eve! The Soviets had bragged that their earlier victories in space proved that atheist Marxism was true. Isn’t John F. Kennedy’s legacy worth a more dramatic and compelling treatment than students are given today?
At least when a textbook is one-sided, however, it could give a student something to argue about; but boredom in our curriculum promises only the death of the subject matter as well as any interest in it. What a shame that great men and women like George Washington, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Jesse Owens, Martin Luther King Jr, and so many others should be consigned to brief mentions only, and then to the sighs of uninterested study. Their stories are just not told.
The textbooks are not the only indicators of the growing national amnesia that begins in childhood. Almost every young citizen’s first introduction to George Washington is a boring, snaffle-mouthed picture on our main currency, the dollar bill. Is this the appropriate depiction of the man once known as the “the fiercest chieftain in the forest?” Who would know he was in his early forties during the Revolution he led, and not guess that he was destined for a convalescent home? (See photo of Washington’s statue on the cover; this was of Washington in his younger years - editor).
Who knows that America’s war against Islamist terror did not begin on September 11, 2001, but that Thomas Jefferson fought our first war on terror, against Muslim slave traders in North Africa who had enslaved some 1.25 million Europeans some 200 years earlier? Children are not taught this.
Not so long ago, we knew our history as the inscription atop the National Archives in Washington declaring what is contained beneath: “The Glory and Romance of Our History.” How to preserve, how to recapture and re-teach, that glory and romance when over one-third of our eighth graders and over fifty percent of our twelfth graders perform below even “a partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their given grades according to the Nation’s Report Card in History?
Let us call for a renewal. Begin with the texts. Let us have a national contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Department of Education for better history textbooks, and grant the winners emoluments and recognition. Judges should be award-winning teachers, tour guides, National Park Rangers, and parents — all of whom are known to love their subject. There really is no good reason for a dulled down history. As McCullough put it, to take what was once “a source of infinite pleasure” and make it “boring,” “is a crime.”
Meet the People
While speaking of money, let us start with a child’s first introduction to George Washington — the dollar bill. We should replace the picture of him now, which represents nothing and nobody anyone would want to study, much less respect, with an engraving based on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s magnificent 1785 sculpture of Washington. It is the most accurate depiction of Washington in life that we have, depicting a virile man at the height of his physical and mental powers. In this sculpture Washington is the man old men respected and young men wanted to ride with. He is also the gallant hero all the young ladies wanted to dance with. But he is more, much more.
Editor’s Note: Houdon's portrait sculpture of Washington was the result of an invitation by Benjamin Franklin to cross the Atlantic specifically to visit Mount Vernon, so that Washington could model for him. Washington sat for wet clay life models and a plaster life mask in 1785. These models served for many commissions of Washington, including the standing figure commissioned by the Legislature of Virginia, and located in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.
As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington in 1775 firmly ordered his soldiers not to celebrate Pope’s Day. It had been a New England tradition for 150 years to set afire effigies of the pope. These straw men were filled with live cats whose screams were said to be those of the popes in Hell. Washington knew that the Continental Army “swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers” and he wisely put an end to such bigotry. He not only ended Pope’s Day in the Army, he ended it in America.
King George III in 1783 said that if General Washington resigned his commission to Congress, then meeting in Annapolis, he really would be “the greatest man on earth.” Washington did that. What does it take to get that kind of praise from your enemy? Go to Annapolis today, and you are likely to be told that “someone told Washington he had to resign.” Similarly, several popular history textbooks simply edit down George Washington (and other greats like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt) to less than greatness; or, they insist on giving equal time to presidents like John Tyler and other figures like Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani.
There’s little sense that textbook writers have taken to heart the criticisms of the rejected National History Standards of 1994. These Standards totally neglected Washington’s role as the first president. For example, Professor Harry Jaffa notes that Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, written in 1790, was the first time in history that any national leader addressed the Jews as equal fellow citizens. Isn’t that remarkable fact worth favorable attention?
These stories about our greats like Washington are accessible in excellent biographies by writers such as Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and Joseph Ellis. Why don’t high schoolers get them in their texts?
Frederick Douglass is almost forgotten in history, or, as Howard Zinn treats him in his A People’s History of the United States, he is a bitter and harsh critic of the U.S., not the hopeful, humorous, full-blooded reformer crying out for justice. Douglass — a one time slave — was once so popular (and supportive of our leaders) that he turned down a run for president of the United States on a third party ticket in order to campaign for the now historically maligned Ulysses S. Grant. History has been unkind to Grant as well, but Douglass knew him as “the great chieftain whose sword cleft the hydra-head of treasons,” who helped give the black man the vote with his “true heart and good right arm.”
Young Fred knocked down the slave-breaker Edward Covey when his owners on Maryland’s Eastern Shore wanted him beaten into submission. Frederick later wrote the fight was his “resurrection as a man.” Later, he held onto the seat in the first class section of a Massachusetts train. The white conductor enlisted several toughs to beat up Frederick and throw him out of the whites-only section. Frederick protested that he’d purchased his ticket. He wound up on the train platform, bruised and rumpled, but still clutching the seat he’d paid for. Riveting details like these show Frederick Douglass as a man with a passion for justice, a man of courage and combativeness. He was not a potted plant nor was he just another bitter critic of America and her ideals.
While speaking of Douglass, let us re-teach who this man was. He and Lincoln were the greatest political thinkers of their day. Douglass was the greatest Marylander of all time. We should put up a great statue of him in front of Maryland’s Historic Old State House. We can make room for Douglass by moving the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney to the front of the State Archives Building in Annapolis, where he belongs.
While speaking of moving, parents are our children’s first teachers and constitute the single-best Department of Education. While looking for summer vacations and road trips, consider taking your children to some of our great historical sites and monuments where the magic of “once-upon-a-time” can be touched and seen with children’s own two hands and own two eyes: Antietam; Gettysburg; Mt. Rushmore; the Lincoln, FDR, and Jefferson Memorials; the Alamo; Pikes Peak — these are all great vacation destinations, and children will love and know what happened there, what is taught there, the stories there.
In his farewell address to the nation, the large-minded amateur historian President Ronald Reagan warned of what we see in our nation’s report card today, saying “If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.” How much more dangerous is this now, as we fight a war for our very existence and expect young Americans to sign up and fight for a country and way of life worthy of their own lives? In the long run, why will future Americans want to stand up and fight for a country they do not even know — a country in which they are born aliens? How do we ask them to fight, and perhaps die, for a country they do not know?
Our history is full of controversy, suffering, struggling, overcoming, and winning. There is no reason to elevate its failings at the expense of its successes, nor is there reason to ignore its failings or, worse, turn it into a snooze-fest. The task is to tell the truth — but can we not do so in an interesting, lively, and glorious way — the way I know and have seen some teachers do?
America was, and is, as Abraham Lincoln described it, “the last best hope of earth.” But to live that dream, to know what hope we convey, and to teach it from generation to generation, we must describe it, appreciate it, and learn to fall in love with it all over again. Thankfully, historical amnesia still has a cure. Let us begin the regimen now.
William John Bennett is an American conservative pundit and politician. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (or "Drug Czar") under George H. W. Bush.
Readers of The Paper will no doubt take notice that we often run cover stories that have historical implications. And, we like to think, are often more than just a little interesting.
We hope this story will accomplish several purposes:
• Remind us all of just how important our teachers are, and particularly those who teach history.
• Remind those history teachers that what they teach is, or should be, colorful and exciting, and they have the opportunity of making the adrenaline flow in their students as they discover the pure joy of researching our history . . . of finding out the little known tales . . . and learning more of the details about the well-known tales; of learning how to separate fact from fiction . . . and learning that, often, fact is far more interesting than fiction.
• Generating even more interest in you, the reader, to look into stories a bit more deeply. Get on the Internet, use Google and other search engines to look behind the front of the story. Often, that is far more interesting than what is first portrayed.
We have learned, and you shall learn, that there are more stories of a historical nature, that are so interesting, so absolutely fascinating, that you could spend a lifetime doing nothing but reading and enjoying the colorful history of our nation . . let alone the rest of the world.
You need not restrict your research to the Revolutionary Years . . . or the early years of America’s founding - you can find dynamic stories dealing with the expansion of our nation westward . . . from the original 13 colonies into the midwest and south . . . the Oregon Trail, the Lewis-Clark Expedition, the Mormon Trek to the west and Utah . . . the stories that came out of the gold country of Callifornia . . the range wars of the west . . . the various lawmen and desperadoes . . . the Indian Wars, the wars with Mexico . . . the impact of WWI and WWII . . . the Korean Conflict . . . the Vietnam War . . . and even the current unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whether it’s ancient history or current history, there are fascinating stories that are not being taught . . . and that should be taught. And there are young minds out there that need to be stimulated . . . and teachers who need to continue to bring history to our students.
Historical Questions - it’s up to you to find the answers.
Lt. Col. William Travis committed suicide shortly before Santa Ana's army attacked the Alamo. True or False?
Jim Bowie had buried treasure from his legendary San Saba silver mine somewhere on the Alamo grounds. True or False?
Davy Crockett died in the battle of the Alamo, or committed suicide . . . or was executed subsequent to the fall of the Alamo. Which is true?
It was the Vikings, not Christopher Columbus who first discovered America. True or False?
Francis, “Swamp Fox” Marion, was a Revolutionary War Hero who formed the model for the modern day Army Rangers. True or False?
William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart) was actually a knight from a noble family. And he didn’t wear kilts. He wore saffron skirts. True or False?
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the famous campaign slogan referred to which battle? And was it really a battle?
John Brown, he who raided Harper’s Ferry, was insane. True or false?
The red planet of Mars is criss-crossed by canals. True or False?
The bombing of Hiroshima causing the Japanese to surrender is largely a myth. True or False?
Who was the Vice President prior to Al Gore?
In the War of 1812, who did the United States battle?
Who first elected the United States Senate?
The Star Spangled Banner became the National Anthem in which year?
In the 1888 presidential election, Grover Cleveland actually received more popular votes than Benjamin Harrison, but Harrison gathered more electoral votes thus making him President. True or False?
So there you are. Your assignment. Find the answers to the questions above.
No, we won’t give you the answers. That defeats the purpose. We’ll give you a few clues to get you started in the right direction by listing some of our sources below. But, you need to begin a search. And we think we know what’s going to happen.
You are likely to find several areas of interest that go way beyond the original question. You’ll search (probably using Google or some other search engine on the computer) - you’ll find the answer . . . but you’ll also find additional information that piques your interest. You decide to “just read a few more paragraphs.” An hour later you move on to the next research question.
You suddenly discover all this is rather fun.
It’s this sense of discovery we would like to see awakened in you, but in particular, our students. There is much to discover about our history - and teachers can make it interesting and fun for them.
We hope the media and writers of textbooks will get it right and not distort history. It has happened before and will happen again, if we allow it.
Photo Credit: The Moonscape photo of the North Pole With Moon Background on the Cover Page is an artistic image created by artist Inga Nielsen.