Charlottesville: What happens if America's children lose our history?

As the school year kicks off in many places across the country it coincides with a very real and explosive situation taking place in America’s streets that speaks directly to the decline of history in this country. Following the terrible events in Charlottesville, we are now facing the very real threat of our children not only losing history through lack of education, but through erasure.

The distressing events of the last several days do provide us with an opportunity to educate our children about history, if we are willing to take it.

I am an author of historical fiction books for kids. And all the time, I hear some version of this lament: “History is just not being taught in our schools anymore! Kids don’t know if the war for independence was the Revolutionary War or the Civil War – it’s pathetic!”

To that, I like to respond that instead of acting like history armchair quarterbacks and placing blame and full responsibility on our school system, perhaps take a good look in the mirror and get a gander at an absolutely perfect part of the solution staring right back at you.

It’s true, history is not being taught as it once was in our schools. An article from the American History Association, “The End of History Education in Elementary Schools?,” sounded the alarm over the decline of history education in a survey that said, “When queried about how history education fared in comparison to other subject offerings … 88 percent of the elementary teachers noted that it was considered a low priority and 63 percent of the elementary school principals noted that history education's importance paled in comparison to subjects such as reading and mathematics.”

But to that, I say: Families, how hard would it be to talk a little history at the dinner table or while driving in the car? Or to go visit a historic site or museum? Or to watch a historical film? Or to read some fun history books together?

If our children aren’t being thoroughly taught history with details like who said, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (do you know who said that?), then we need to work along with our schools and help fill the gaps ourselves. Whether you have children or not, why not go visit a school and share a fun story or artifact from American history with a class of third graders? Dare I suggest volunteering to lead a history club?

What’s happening in the country right now actually offers a perfect opportunity to teach children about our past. The response to Charlottesville should not be to remove our national monuments, but to point to them and teach the history behind them. Why are we so afraid to do that?

Our kids need to learn the good, the bad and the ugly side of America's history, so they will learn not to repeat the bad and aspire to surpass the good. It's the painful lessons that teach us the most, and that stick with us most in life. 

You’ve heard the often-repeated phrase, “Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.” The phrase is repeated because people find it to be timelessly true. And I submit that it’s hard for children to remember something that they aren’t taught. 

Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently gave an interview with The Islander high school paper, and was asked what subjects students should be studying to prepare them to be politically active and aware adults. “I don’t think you can go wrong if you maintain an avid interest in history,” he said. “The reason I say that is you’ll find that really, there’s nothing new under the sun, other than some of the technology we use.”

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past,” said Patrick Henry in 1775. The Founding Fathers certainly studied history. They studied the ancient civilizations and empires of Greece and Rome. They meticulously looked at what worked and what didn’t work with human beings and government across time. And as a result, the experiment of American government set in motion something completely new in history – something that had never been done before.

So here is my challenge to parents and non-parents alike: If we don’t take personal responsibility to know history ourselves, and to teach what we know to the next generation, then who will?

This summer I taught kids how to be colonial soldiers at an Epic Patriot Camp in South Carolina. I asked them what would happen if we lost our history. “We’d lose our future,” they told me. Then I asked them whose responsibility it was to preserve our history. Their answer might surprise you. “Ours,” they said.

If kids are willing to be responsible for preserving America’s history, then that’s half the battle, isn’t it? The rest is up to us to teach them.

Only a few lines after his “lamp of experience” quote, Patrick Henry rallied a nation to independence with seven little words, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

Now you remember who said that. So go share it with a child today. Take a look at what is happening in our country – the good, the bad and the ugly – and talk about it with a young person. They will be grateful for it. So will our country. 

Jenny L. Cote is the author of "The Voice, the Revolution, and the Key" (AMG Publishers), a book designed to encourage kids to get excited about learning the history of Patrick Henry’s life and quest for liberty.