Presidential debates and the importance of American history

Millions of Americans tuned into the second presidential debate on Sunday night to witness one of the more anticipated events in recent political history. In many households, the sense of suspense was likely significant -- to the point that even children noticed the drama.

For many families, it can be difficult to convey to young people that despite the noise and excitement surrounding this race, presidential debates and elections are serious things. They can affect the lives of millions of Americans, and on many occasions in the past, they have.

Indeed, a little American history is a healthy counterweight to the daily commotion of the presidential campaign.

That is one purpose of "Hail to the Chief," the latest in my New York Times bestselling series of children’s books featuring Ellis the Elephant. In "Hail to the Chief," Ellis discovers many of America’s greatest presidents--including a few who have participated in some extraordinary debates themselves.

In 1960, for instance, the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon may well have been decisive in that election--one of the closest in our nation’s history. Kennedy’s victory had huge ramifications for the country and the world--culturally, politically, and militarily--for decades to come.

In "Hail to the Chief," Ellis also discovers Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas on the topic of slavery were reprinted in newspapers throughout the country. They were crucial in raising Lincoln’s national stature and clarifying public debate on the question that ultimately led to the Civil War.

Today, as our country awaits the final presidential debate of 2016 and prepares to elect its 45th president, stories like these from our nation’s past can help young and old alike understand that debates really do matter, and that elections really do have consequences.

Ellis offers readers a useful lesson about the wisdom of the American people, as well. Throughout our history, Americans have chosen some exceptional leaders--tough and energetic figures who have inspired the nation. And we have also selected some unlikely presidents who no one would have predicted, but who offered the country unique leadership when it was urgently needed.

Unfortunately, we have some real work to do when it comes to passing this history on to the next generation of Americans.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students score worse in American history than in any other subject--at every grade level and often overwhelmingly so. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 18 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.

This election is a perfect occasion for each of us to begin promoting knowledge of our presidential past with the young people in our own lives. Hail to the Chief is an excellent starting place, as it highlights the stories of some of our greatest presidents.

During this election season, take a few minutes to share the stories of our country’s greatest presidents with the young Americans in your life.

You’ll be doing a service that too many of our schools are not--and in the process, perhaps inspiring the next generation of American leaders.