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Teaching the Children Well

October 23rd, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


This morning I was reflecting on the election and I considered how grateful I am as a history professor to be able to teach young people, freshmen and sophomores, about our history. As a baby boomer I note with disappointment how many in my generation dismiss the young people of today as disconnected and uncaring. But the vast opportunities available to us as young people have fizzled, and we leave our own children and grandchildren with brokenness and conflict at every turn. Some of the youth may be cynical but we have left them every reason to be so. We are fading away, and if the state of the world we have created is illustrated in the current election, history would not be unfair to look back on our generation and say good riddance.

But the one bright spot of this election season has been how Bernie Sanders was able to awaken in young people the sense of idealism and vision that created America. As a Christian minister I hear many of my colleagues bemoaning that the young are rejecting the church. But the contemporary church, like contemporary secular life, offers little for them to believe in. False narratives and broken promises. When they are offered something authentic, we find that they hunger for it.

George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The novel is fiction but the import is not. The first lesson I teach my students is that they have been misinformed (or, in many cases, lied to) about history. Americans in general do not value history as significant in national life, yet we have long recognized that relating certain stories as truth can create a desired perception of who we are. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin raised to the level of gods. Whitewashing or ignoring the tragic consequences of  seminal events in the creation of the United States we live in. When students learn the realities of our national story it can be disheartening. But to ignore them allows those with interest to color the past as they would like it, with the intent to create a present that serves their interest. There is no better example of this in contemporary America than the so-called Tea Party Movement, hearkening to a mythical age of heroism by recasting the perpetrators of a terrorist act as patriots. It is true that there is no single correct interpretation of history. Our own perception will be influenced by our own experience and background. But there are facts and there are lies. And for most of us, our understanding of history, that creates our understanding of who we are as a people, is inaccurate.

Teaching history can be a real burden. It often feels like having to affirm there is no Santa Claus. But I notice that students are by and large grateful to know it. Most of them don’t know at first but come to sense that being able to determine what is likely true and not is essential to their understanding of who we are. It is essential to overcoming the tangled mess we are leaving them. My goal in teaching history is to give these young people tools and understanding they can use to create a better future for themselves and for their children.

There is an English proverb that says old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill every time. The cynicism and corruption of the Clintons and Trumps have given these newly awakened democrats (small d) a lesson in the viciousness of real world politics. But they are nevertheless awakening. The future is theirs, and I hope they grasp it as enthusiastically as they did Bernie’s message. If we baby boomers can finally teach our children well, perhaps we can create a redeeming legacy.


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