Saturday, March 10, 2007

We're History - NOT

This week, I watched “The Dark Ages” on the History Channel. I love history – almost any era, but with a particular fondness for ancient Rome, Biblical events, the American Revolution and World War II.

Young people don’t seem to care about history, or in many cases, have the slightest bit of historical knowledge. Maybe that’s because in today’s world of instant technology and fleeting impressions, anything older than one day is perceived as of no consequence. They don’t see how what happened in the past affects them. Or is it the way it’s taught – or not taught – in schools? If it’s taught as just a bunch of dates and places to remember with no connection to today, it’s no wonder students don’t care to learn.

Recently in one of my Public Relations classes, I tried to make a point about how certain events are life-defining for different generations – events that forever changed their way of thinking or behaving. For the Greatest Generation of my parents, it was Pearl Harbor. For their Baby Boomer offspring, there was a choice: the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, the turbulent 60’s, Kent State. For this generation, it has to be 9-11.

My students are a bright group, and of course they understood how 9-11 changed their existence. But I could tell that they had no clue as to how Pearl Harbor changed their grandparents’ lives or how the 60s shaped my world – because they didn’t know what those events were. I’m finding that every historical reference I make, I have to explain – and that’s not just to college students.

The historian David McCullough spoke a few months ago at our local Cultural Center and he naturally bemoaned the lack of historical knowledge and the sorry state of history education. Listening to him, you could hear and feel his passion and joy for history. That’s what it takes with any subject – passion and joy. If teachers are creative and let students explore history by “becoming” a historical figure through role-playing, re-creations and the like, those lessons will be remembered. History, after all, is people – knowing how an ordinary person in ancient Rome lived brings that history to life.

History teaches us more about today than yesterday. Here’s hoping we don’t lose that teaching.

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