If this country had a different type of government — for instance a dictatorship or a monarchy — having a rising generation of citizens who didn’t know much about their own country’s past wouldn’t be a major problem. It might even keep the peace better. But in our representative democracy, requiring instruction in U.S. history is crucial to ensuring our system functions properly.
The announcement last week that rising high school freshmen in Lincoln County will have to take, not one, but two courses in American history before they can graduate probably brought a few groans from those who just finished middle school, as if they had just been promised school lunches with more nutrition. Either way, they may not think they’ll like the taste, but it should be good for them. And the taste may surprise them as well.
Having students spend more time learning about the nation in which they live should equip them to be better citizens, with a better understanding of their own place in the big scheme of things. They also may begin learning how to think critically about the big issues of politics and society — careful, teachers, that’s “how to think” and not “what to think.”
Students who think history is boring, provided they don’t have an instructor who agrees or a textbook that writes it that way, may be surprised to discover that they are mostly learning stories about things being said and done by people who really lived and who really mattered. History is a web of people, events and ideas in motion over time. And we are all strands in that web.
Parents of high-schoolers going through those two courses in U.S. history should take advantage of the situation to talk with their youngsters about the subject matter. A few parents may have something to learn, too. But more importantly, parents have the opportunity to help students understand a story in which their own families are players.
Learning about the colonial era? A large percentage of Lincoln County families have lived here since those days, and came here for religious freedom, to escape debts in the Old World, to serve out an indenture or because they had been enslaved. Learning about the Revolution? Lincoln families were sorely divided and lost many sons during the last years of the struggle for independence. Learning about the Civil War? Many will have ancestors who served on one side or the other, or perhaps both. Computer records are now available that make it easier than ever to identify your Civil War relatives, where they lived, where they fought and possibly more information. Learning about the world wars? Our grandparents and great-grandparents won them.
Learning about the industrial revolution, the first cars, the Depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam conflict, the moon race, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, the Iran-hostage crisis, the Reagan revolution, the first computers, the Gulf war, the dot-com bubble, 9/11 and everything since? What we have lived as the great happenings of our times is the history we will teach our children.
To study our history is to look in a mirror and understand who we are, instilling a sense of pride in being a part of something greater, as well as a desire to better ourselves and the world around us. It may take courage, but it’s worthwhile.