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Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2001 / 29 Shevat, 5761

John H. Fund

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Forgetting our heroes -- A FRIEND of mine with two children in a comfortable, suburban grade school reports that there was not one mention of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln before the kids were sent home for the "President's Day" long weekend. I was floored. "Don't they discuss any American heroes in school anymore?," I wondered. I was told that, to the contrary, on Martin Luther King Day teachers mentioned the late civil-rights leader in every class, including mathematics.

Now it's good that children become acquainted with the apostle of non-violent opposition to segregation. But aren't we missing something if we crowd out and ignore the elements of American history that most of us grew up with? Seth Lipsky, a Wall Stret Journal colleague and the former editor of the Jewish newspaper the Forward, reports that he recently addressed a class of eight grade journalists and discovered that not one of them could tell him what the Cold War had been about.

"History is no easy subject," Ronald Reagan quipped in 1987. "Even in my day it wasn't, and we had so much less of it to learn then."

But for Ronald Reagan neglecting to teach our history was a serious problem. Almost exactly a dozen years ago President Reagan left office with a sharp but clear warning to Americans that we were heading down the path of historical amnesia. In his farewell address of Jan. 11, 1989, Mr. Reagan cautioned all citizens about the dangers of forgetting their history and urged a new patriotism on the basis of learning more about it.

"If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are," he predicted. "I am warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result ultimately in an erosion of the American spirit." He mentioned the importance of knowing "why the pilgrims came" across storm-tossed seas in search of religious freedom, "who Jimmy Doolittle was and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant," as well as the landings at Normandy. Even then it was a stretch for the 70% of Americans who had been born after World War II to identify Jimmy Doolittle as the aviator who flew a squadron off a heaving carrier deck to bomb the Japanese capital and provide a needed morale boost in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. Imagine how many Americans know who he is today with over 80% of us born after the 20th Century's most horrific war was over?

I'm not suggesting that American school kids need to know who Jimmy Doolittle was rather than, say, Harriet Tubman (heroine of the Underground Railroad before the Civil War) or Sacagawea, (the Shoshone woman who guided Lewis and Clark and appears on the widely promoted new dollar coin, a billion of which will be issued by the end of the year) to name just two politically correct figures who almost every youngster now learns about.

But Mr. Reagan was on to something when he recalled that on the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings he had read a letter from a young woman whose dad had fought at Omaha Beach in France. Mr. Reagan recalled how she had said "we will always remember, we will never forget, what the boys of Normandy did." Reagan teared a bit and added, "Well, let's help her keep her word."

He said that Americans born before about 1955, "grew up in a different America" where they learned to love and appreciate their country both from their own family as well as in school. They soaked up a civic pride "from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or you got a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special."

Today, Mr. Reagan's fears that young parents would become more ambivalent about conveying an appreciation of America have come to pass. It's true that in recent years Steven Spielberg and Tom Brokaw have reminded us of the heroes of Normandy and Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" offered a rare look at the American Revolution. But those films are the exception and rare was the school that built a lesson plan around the themes they discussed. Lynne Cheney, the wife of the new vice president and former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Mr. Reagan, has called much of what passes for the teaching of U.S. history "atrocious." Here's hoping she uses her new "bully pulpit" to speak out on how schools can be encouraged to do better.

Ronald Reagan signed off on that January night in 1989 by saying "we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important." For Reagan this was a message he stressed throughout his public life. "If I can leave the young people . . . with one message, it is this: History is on the side of the free," he told a Venice, Italy, economic summit in 1987. If history offers us that lesson to teach, how can we continue to ignore it?

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©2001, John H. Fund