Claiming Our Past

Memory is key to self-identify both for individuals and communities. Knowing and understanding our past places the present in context. In order to make reasonable extrapolations into the future, the present must be anchored to the past. Change our memories and understanding of the past and you change who we are now and who are likely to evolve into. This is reason why the teaching of history is so important and  why some recent events are so discouraging.

Perhaps the most consequential British citizen of the twentieth century was Winston Churchill. It was Churchill’s poetic articulation of English resolve that sustained the English during the Battle of Britain and led to victory in WWII against the Nazism and Fascism. Now we find that Churchill is to be dropped from England’s history syllabus in part to make room for practical life skills. It is not so much that Churchill is being dropped in favor of other more favored by contemporary standards. “Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Joseph Stalin and Martin Luther King” have also been dropped. It is that without a knowledge of the monumental struggles of the past, we an incapable of drawing experience and inspiration from these struggles. The lost of the past does not focus us on the future, but robs from the future and make us entirely a present-tense society. The British could only be bucked up with Churchill’s words, “we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden time” if there was an olden time to which the British could recall.

What is happening in Britain appears less malicious than foolish. Perhaps we cannot be so generous in our estimation of American efforts to create politically correct history text books. William Bennett reports that the National History standards emphasize Soviet space activities and the Challenger accident with nary a mention of the Moon landing. There is one textbook that devotes more space to Clinton’s reinventing government than Eisenhower’s interstate highway system

The Washington Post reports the difficulty in teaching literature from such classics as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird because of the some of the language is racially offensive. Ironically, considered in the context of the times, both books represented radical notions of racial equality. Now these authors are not appreciated by those who do not have a sufficient historical perspective to appreciate the work.

There has been renewed interest in our Founding Fathers given some recent best selling books such ad David McCullough’s John Adams, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. Doris Kearns Goodwin managed to provide additional insight on Abraham Lincoln’s political skill in Team of Rivals. Certainly, William Bennett is doing his part publishing the two volume best selling history of the US, America: The Last Best Hope. However, these appeal primarily to adults and young people probably already interested and literate in history.

Perhaps we can work in our local communities to make sure that history is given its proper priority in the curriculum. However, it an arduous task likely to consume years of effort. This is a time for the entertainment industry to step into the breach and provide popular re-tellings of history. If the fictional Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter can draw large young audiences, surely stories from the greatest political story every told can be made interesting.

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