I was chatting one day with a teenage boy who worked for me and somehow the conversation turned to the subject of studying history. Young Sam didn’t see the point of it.
“Why,” he reasoned, “should I care about things that happened before I was even born?” Now, I’ve heard it said that there’s no such thing as a dumb question, but..well, as I said Sam was young.
Personally, I love history. Especially American history. I believe that it is the most important academic subject we teach our children. That’s why my wife and I wrote our elementary (Providential) American history text books. That’s why I saw very little of Marilyn except the top of her head for a year and a half—it took eighteen months for her to write For You They Signed, a book of character studies from the lives of the great men who signed the Declaration of Independence. That’s why I spend so much time recording great old books for kids in my Uncle Rick audio book club. History matters far more than most people think. The only reason you were bored with in school is that it was poorly taught.
As I tried to explain to my friend Sam, certain things could not happen in the present if certain other things had not happened in the past. For instance, if Sam’s mother had never met Sam’s father in the past, there would be no Sam in the present. Just little things like that.
The events of the past made the world in which we live for the present. Today, things are happening that will determine what will happen tomorrow. “Now” is the meeting place of eternity past and eternity future and it is not possible to separate the three time periods. They are siblings; in fact, conjoined triplets.
But your children are young and they may someday wonder why you’re so intent on teaching them about their heritage as Americans. Why do they need to know?
First, because it’s a tremendous source of character training. Do your children whine? Do they think life is tough because they have to clean their rooms and mow the grass? Do they not appreciate the comfort in which they live every day? Maybe it’s because they’re only comparing their situation with some friend whose life seems easier. Tell them about George Rogers Clark and let them compare their challenges with his.
During the Revolutionary War, Major Clark led his unpaid, undersupplied militiamen on a 180-mile trek across what is now Illinois to take the fort at Vincennes from “Hair-buyer Hamilton,” a British officer who paid the Indians in gold for American scalps. They made the secret expedition in February, across icy, rain-flooded prairies. Day after day they marched, hungry, wet, freezing, exhausted and sometimes unable to find a dry hill on which to camp at night. When they finally arrived at the last river between them and the fort, they found its icy floodwaters spread out for five miles. By the time they waded across, carrying their sick in canoes, some of the marchers were so far gone that they collapsed while still partly in the water.
History is also a great source of life experience at somebody else’s expense. Thomas Fuller said, “History maketh a young man to be old…privileging him with the experience of age, without either the infirmities or inconveniences thereof.” Kids can learn positive lessons from Thomas Edison, who educated himself for the most part and became the world’s most prolific inventor. Or they can take warning from General Custer, whose excessive pride led to his death and the deaths of his entire troop at Little Big Horn. There is no need to make all the mistakes in the world if you’re willing to learn from the mistakes of others—in the past. Hear George Washington: “We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”
Sometimes individuals, families and nations can avoid disaster by learning what caused disasters in time gone by. As journalist Norman Cousins said, “History is a vast early warning system.” We should all hope that the phenomenon of Adolph Hitler is never forgotten, lest whole nations again be deceived by a charismatic leader and the Holocaust repeated. Those who say it could never happen again have not read deeply in history. Hitler was not the first tyrant.
As Americans, we should value the study of history more than any other people. Why? Because our history is something special. Our country is the first republic established by Christians and intentionally built on Biblical principles. That is what has made America the leading nation of the free world for most of our history.
Oh, I know if you’ve been through school in the last several decades you’ve been taught something quite different. America has recently been portrayed as greedy, selfish, tyrannical and unjust. We’re also told that our Founders were Deists, agnostics and atheists who were motivated only by greed and self-interest. If you believe that myth, it’s because you’ve only read modern history books rather than the diaries of men such as Franklin, Madison and Adams.
If you’ve only read about the Declaration of Independence you may not know that the Founders believed that the rights of men come from “their Creator” rather than from government. If you’re read that short, marvelous document for yourself, you know the truth.
When Benjamin Franklin stood up in the Constitutional Convention to suggest daily prayer in that body, he referenced Scripture at least half a dozen times in that brief speech. “If a sparrow cannot fall without the notice of God, he asked, how can an empire rise without His aid?” Franklin was among the less religious of our Founding Fathers, and that should tell us something about our heritage.
The vast majority of the men who made America in the extraordinary years of the late 1700’s were godly, or at least God-fearing. That’s why our laws reflect the Ten Commandments. That’s why the freedom of religion is dealt with in the very first Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
It’s only because we don’t understand the godly roots of American government that it was ever possible for modern Supreme Courts to twist the Constitution as they have. If the Court of 1961-62 were correct in saying that prayer in school is unconstitutional, why didn’t the very men who wrote the Constitution know it? Why was it okay to pray in school for nearly two hundred years under the Constitution? People who know our history demand answers to such questions.
Roe vs. Wade (1973) could not have happened a hundred years earlier. Justices would have been impeached over such a travesty. Why? Because in 1873, Americans knew their history and clung to our early values. But after a hundred years of educational malpractice, most of us just believe what our leaders tell us and just go along to get along.
The most important reason, I think, for immersing our kids in American history is that they are responsible for making it. What your children and mine do with their lives will have a part in shaping the events that are recorded by the historians of tomorrow. If we fail to learn and to teach them the lessons of the past, godless social engineers will continue to determine America’s course. If our kids don’t rise to leadership and reverse that course, another few decades will find the United States of America looking like Europe, with families dissolved, sadness and poverty on every hand and churches abandoned, haunted by the outraged spirits of ideals that once glowed throughout the land.
In 1630 Governor Winthrop stood on the windswept deck of the Arbella and delivered a bold sermon to the hardy souls who would soon establish Massachusetts Bay Colony. Without even knowing it, he laid a great proposition before generations of Americans to come:
“…Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… Beloved, there is now set before us life, and good, death and evil in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God… Therefore let us choose life, that we, and our seed, may live; by obeying His voice, and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.”
But of course, all that’s history now.