A Leaf, A Branch, A Tree: Giving Our Young People Their History

May 21, 2019 Updated: May 21, 2019

In “A Familiar Wilderness: Searching for Home on Daniel Boone’s Road,” author S. J. Dahlman includes a quotation from Michael Crichton: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

Those of us who do know some history are well aware that many of our fellow citizens, especially the young, are those clueless leaves. Perhaps you’ve seen that YouTube video where Mark Dice stands on a sidewalk, microphone in hand, and interviews pedestrians, asking them why we celebrate Independence Day on the Fourth of July and receiving either baffled looks or responses akin to “It’s the day we won our independence from Canada.” Perhaps you’ve spoken to a friend or neighbor who looks blank when you tell them your distant ancestor fought at the Battle of Yorktown. Perhaps you’ve watched CNN or Fox News, and realized that some members of our present Congress apparently lack a working knowledge of our Constitution.

As a history major in college, followed by two years of graduate study, and as a lifelong reader of histories and biographies, I am not so much appalled by this ignorance as I am frightened. To study history is to step aboard a time machine. We enter into the trials and triumphs of those who have gone before us, we find hope in human progress, and we learn the art of nuance, conceding, for instance, that Robert E. Lee fought for a bad cause but that he did so from a love for Virginia, which he regarded as his home. If we fail to board that time machine, if we fail to study and appreciate the dead who gave birth to this present, we become drifters, as so many are today, bobbing aimlessly in the stream of current events and believing the outlandish promises of certain politicians, who are themselves ignorant about the story of humankind.

So what can we do to help these leaves among us become more aware that they cling to the branches of a gargantuan oak, and that those branches are fixed in turn to a massive trunk fed by roots running deep into the past?

Leaving aside history as it is taught in our schools—some do a splendid job, others a poor one—here are six ways parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and mentors can bring the past to life for young people and help them develop a respect for those who have preceded them.

Start Them Young 

If we bring them enthusiasm and good books, we can interest even kindergartners in history. The shelves of our public libraries are jammed with colorful histories, intriguing biographies, and historical novels. The Eyewitness Books, for example, appeal to 6-year-olds as well as adults. Biographies for elementary school students run the gamut from George Washington to Florence Nightingale, from John Glenn to Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was in grade school, I became enamored with “The Childhood of Famous Americans” series, and as an adult collected close to a hundred of these, purchased at library and yard sales, to share with my children and grandchildren. (My twin granddaughters are especially intrigued by the life of Helen Keller.) Introducing your children to history at an early age may lead to a lifelong love affair.

Documentaries

There are thousands of movies and documentaries set in the past. “Drums Along The Mohawk,” “Spartacus,” “Glory,” “Apollo 13,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Darkest Hour”: such films are a gold mine attracting the young to the past and rousing a good discussion. Go to YouTube, type in “history for kids” or “history for teens,” and you’ll find scores of documentaries describing everything from the building of the pyramids to the Civil War.

Discuss Current Events

The headlines of today are linked to events in the past. The fire that destroyed part of Notre Dame provides a moment to hit the internet and read up on that historic cathedral. The recent murder of hundreds of people in Sri Lanka is the time to look at the rich cultural heritage of that island and its recent bloody conflicts.

Invite Older People to Speak in School Classrooms

When I was teaching U.S. history to a class of homeschoolers, I asked one of the student’s fathers to talk to the young people about his time in the Marine Corps, where he had served in Vietnam and where he afterward rose to become the highest ranking enlisted man in the Corps. He arrived in full-dress blues—he could still fit in his uniform—and his stories from Vietnam fascinated the students as well as me. That day, history leaped out of our textbooks and came alive.  

Visit Historical Sites During Summer Vacations and Holidays

Recently, my daughter and her husband took their children to Jamestown and Williamsburg for a three-day stay. The kids returned bubbling over with stories of what they had seen: the arts and crafts, the weapons in the Governor’s Palace, the pillory, stock, and whipping post.

Finally, Tell Stories About You and Your Family

Most young people like to hear stories of their parents’ childhoods, college years, courting, and work. They absorb those tales told about their great-grandparents. Connect those stories to the history of the times—Where were you when men first walked on the moon? What do you remember about different presidents? Which ones did you like and why? What do you remember from 9/11?—and you are helping create junior historians.

In his “Reflections On The Revolution In France,” parts of which I read long ago, William Burke writes “Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership … not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

When we break that partnership, we do so at our peril.

When we strengthen it, we build bridges to our past and to our children’s future.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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