Celebrate the past: Historical events should not be disregarded, forgotten

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In classrooms and homes, on campuses and newsstands, the story of our past is disappearing. At a time when citizens have access to more information than any time in history, people are exhibiting less of a grasp on just that: our history.

The celebration of our American past seems to be dying as numbers roll in depicting our society’s historical illiteracy. One 2006 study by the Inter-College Studies Institute administered a 60-question general U.S. history exam to 14,000 college freshmen. They averaged an F.

What is eroding our national memory? The problem lies in the way history is taught. Many courses are exercises in memorization of dates, names and places. Instructors do not sufficiently encourage the closer study of the colorful characters and incredible events that make our past a rich subject.

As historian David McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographies “Truman” and “John Adams,” said, “If it’s made a matter of dates and memorization of obscure provisos and ancient treaties, if it’s made boring, if it’s made dull, how can you blame anyone for turning away from it?”

So what approach should our educators use? Teachers should make history come alive through storytelling. They should bring history to life by painting a picture of events and people on a more emotional level – not just as cold, static facts in a textbook.

No tale is as fascinating as the American pageant, said Charles Sanders, associate professor of history.

“I approach American history as a story,” Sanders said. “It’s a great story, full of drama, humor, sadness, joy, excitement – the whole range of human emotions.” In his classroom, Sanders said he approaches the subject by urging students to “capture not only the facts of history, but the feel as well.”

Too many of us view history as we do chemistry or math: the facts are fixed, and the results only come out one way. But no event in our history was preordained. The best history teachers are the ones who emphasize this. They raise interest in the subject, and their students critically evaluate and retain information. They make students ask, “Why did this happen? How were they feeling?”

Consider if the Revolutionary War had been lost. Imagine that Rosa Parks had not defiantly stayed seated on that Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955.

Our past was shaped by people who are little different than we are, but who were placed in a position that enabled them to change the trajectory of America. When students realize that our most famous (and infamous) figures were ordinary people with real fears and hopes, they become more interested; and raising interest is the answer to reviving the celebration of our history.

History can be more fascinating than any movie, TV show or video game. We must admit, however, it is in direct competition with those media for our attention.

Luckily, Sanders said, history is not only entertaining but thought-provoking when it is, “that sort which historian Bruce Catton has described as ‘history with the blood in it.'”

We cannot allow our history – the glaring failures or incredible successes – to be pushed aside. How can we deny ourselves this lens?

It can bring our present and future into perspective. An appreciation of history builds better citizens and gives us a fresh outlook on the problems of the present, and the whole history of this continent and its people should be learned because it is fun.

It is an exploration into centuries of struggle and debate that define our shared experience as diverse citizens of the United States.

It is a story that might make us embarrassed or proud, worried or hopeful, but it is our story. We should never forget it.

Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to opinion@spub.ksu.edu.

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