Kids Need a History Lesson--Start with the 4th of July

Kids Need a History Lesson--Start with the 4th of July

Getty Images/Erik S. Lesser

When families gather this week to watch fireworks light up the skies, will their children have any idea what we are celebrating? Do they understand the significance of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, and the Constitutional Convention? Doubtful. Our public schools -- and our nation’s parents -- are failing to teach our kids about the noble history of this country. This is a shame, and it has consequences.

Families used to vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, Mystic Seaport and other historic spots, where kids would be introduced to our beginnings, our seafaring history and to the various chapters that help make up the rich tapestry of our nation’s story. Today, those locales have had to add world-class spas, golf courses and other enticements to attract the “me” generation.

In 1976, Mystic entertained 750,000 visitors; in 2011 that had dropped to 254,000. Williamsburg has seen a steady decline in visitors since 1999; similar sites have also suffered a long-term downtrend in attendance.

Historic toys aren’t popular either. Samantha and Kirsten, storied American Girl dolls beloved by a generation, have been abandoned by the Pleasant Company. In their stead, American Girl offers “customizable” dolls that can look like -- and delight -- any self-absorbed six-year old.

Samantha and Kirsten, two of the three original American Girl dolls that made the company famous, came with charming, easy-to-read books about their histories. Samantha grew up in Boston during Victorian times while Kirsten, of Swedish ancestry, arrived in the prairies of Minnesota in the 1950s. The dolls offered youngsters just a tiny glance at our country’s history. Tiny, but evidently too much. These days, a bigger hit is Barbie, kitted out in a new “digital dress”, with 114 LED lights that allow you to create your own graphics, like hearts or stars. 

Testing has revealed the depths of American kids’ ignorance. Less than one quarter are “proficient” in history, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress report. A majority of fourth-graders could not identify what was important about Abraham Lincoln; 80 percent of 8th-graders were unable to select the right answer when asked which of four countries allied with North Korea during the Korean War. 

It’s pretty appalling, and certainly does not augur well for an informed electorate. As they turn their uninformed backs on the essential underpinnings of our country’s success – independence, self-reliance, hard work, we will pay a price, a price that will only rise as we welcome 11 million mostly Hispanic immigrants into our country as voting citizens. This large and diverse country is held together by a fragile embrace of our nation’s history, the values and beliefs that made the United States a beacon for people around the world. That hold gets pretty wobbly if our children have no idea where we came from.

As the people of South Africa keep vigil for Nelson Mandela, they can at least rejoice that their children are learning the recent history of their land. As newspapers and TV stations recount Mandela’s personal story, kids will hear the lessons taught by that towering leader – lessons that have kept a fractious people from turning on itself.

When followers sought revenge as their leader emerged from 27 years in prison, Mandela preached tolerance and unity, helping to fashion a successful country from the ashes of apartheid. It was not easy; South Africa is challenged by innumerable tribal and racial divisions, by extreme income inequality and a bitter history. Mr. Mandela saw beyond those problems; he saw the future. As South Africa’s youth relives Mr. Mandela’s personal story, they will be firmer supporters of his teachings. Another generation may be inspired to follow his pathways, and South Africa will benefit.

As countries around the world – Egypt, Libya, Turkey – start their long walk towards freedom, they should wish for a leader like Mr. Mandela. Turkey had Mustafa Ataturk, who against all odds created a modern secular country in a volatile region. With his death now 75 years ago, Ataturk’s teachings are fading in Turkey’s memory. Youngsters probably wonder why shopkeepers post Ataturk’s photo on their walls; they might not know the long and sorry history of ethnic strife that long hobbled their nation. Most likely they do not see the dangers of Turkey’s flirtation with Islamic rule, how leaving behind their secularism might threaten their future. They should look to Egypt.

Young democracies naturally face turbulence as rivals struggle for power. But even established countries like the United States need to shore up our foundations. We need our children to understand why the right to vote, the right to protest and to criticize the government is essential. We need to teach them about our contributions to world peace through strength, our sacrifices made on behalf of allies and even foes; they need to comprehend why it is that our land has long been the beacon for oppressed peoples around the globe.

As important as the tendrils which bind us as a society, we need our children to see how our country celebrates the individual. This country was built by bold visionaries who explored our wild boundaries, who took risks that turned frontiers into farmland, and who built our modern industries. The United States stands for more than pop music, wealthy banks and flashy gizmos. It stands for freedom and decency, generosity and hard work. Our past is as bright as the fireworks that celebrate our birth. If our children do not understand that, we will not continue to be “the shining light upon the hill”, and that will be a tragedy.