A History Wake-Up Call

May 2nd, 2017

I’m a huge history buff.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading biographies of famous people and visiting important battlefields and homes of key individuals who shaped the world we now know.

Presidential history especially interests me.  My parents could certainly attest to this fact. For example, in one notable chapter in my childhood, I struck up a friendship with a staff member of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library in Fremont, Ohio.  On a family vacation, I even insisted that my parents drive hundreds of miles out of their way just so I could visit the place.  When I arrived, it was as if President Hayes himself was there to greet me.  My entire family was actually impressed with the way the staff rolled out the red carpet for us.  I guess that wasn’t entirely surprising.  There probably weren’t too many ten-year-olds so enthralled by Rutherford B. Hayes then or likely now.

In fact, judging by recent events, it’s probably even more unlikely now.  It seems that everyone, including the 45th president of the United States, isn’t too keen on learning even basic American history.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the interview where President Trump famously asks the question, “Why was there the Civil War?  Why could that one not have been worked out?”  He then suggests that Andrew Jackson, for whom he clearly has an affinity, was alive during the Civil War.  Jackson died in 1845 so he missed the beginning of that war by sixteen years.  Trump later clarified this point tweeting, “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry.  Would never have let it happen!”

Now Jackson was a Southerner and a slave owner, so it’s difficult to imagine what he might have done to prevent the war from happening without ensuring the continuation of slavery. I doubt anyone, including President Trump, thinks that would have been a great idea.

President Trump isn’t the only president to ever bungle facts or history.  President Obama once famously bragged about visiting “57 states” leaving him with “one left to go.”  He also claimed that his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz in World War II, which unless he was a Russian soldier, was highly unlikely (and in fact completely wrong—he actually was part of the liberation at Buchenwald).

Unfortunately, this all points to a larger more disturbing point. There is that old adage, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”

Knowing and understanding history is key to our success in the future.  Sadly, too few people take the time to learn the subject.

Our education system is especially failing in this regard.  In fact, some history teachers these days seem to regard history instruction as an opportunity to espouse their own political views of the world and twist facts to suit themselves.

Case in point was my own son’s eighth grade history class years ago where the teacher elected to skip the Civil War entirely.  Yes, you read that right. I guess she figured her students had probably heard about it.  Lucky for my son, we vacationed through Gettysburg that year and he had an opportunity to learn firsthand about the battle there and the Gettysburg Address.  To me, that seemed important.  To his teacher, evidently, not so much.

I don’t know if there is such a staff position, but if there is not, I believe every White House should have a staff historian.  There should be someone on hand in the West Wing who can explain to a president who might not otherwise be familiar with the subject why certain things may line up the way they do.  For example, why do we still have United States military bases in Germany and Japan?  Things like that.

I believe this is extremely important, or we will very possibly, through unforced errors, be condemned to repeat some ugly parts of the past.

That is one tragedy we could easily avoid.

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