Teaching Our Children Civil War History
This weekend my wife and I participated in the annual Jeb Stuart Civil War reenactment at Laurel Hill, Virginia. Reenacting gives us a chance to live in the 1860s, to cook over an open fire, to sleep on the (hard!) ground in a tent, to be with some good friends in the reenacting community, and to put on living history for the public. As always there were period-style encampments, sutlers hawking their wares, plenty of Southern Gospel music, and show battles in which several hundred reenactors skirmished in honor of their ancestors.
One of the greatest opportunities at such events is to educate the public about Civil War history. Many people have no understanding of the U.S. Constitution, no idea of why the war was fought, and consequently no idea how to meet similar challenges today. Once in a while, however, you meet individuals and families who truly appreciate the importance of this period of our history. This weekend we were blessed to meet several.
In his book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom speaks to this issue. He writes that many modern families “have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others…. The family requires a certain authority and wisdom about the ways of the heavens and of men. The parents must have knowledge of what has happened in the past, and prescriptions for what ought to be, in order to resist the philistinism or the wickedness of the present.” Bloom continues: “People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life.” In other words, parents are of no help to their children unless they themselves have acquired a foundation in certain basic areas of knowledge.
How refreshing it was to meet families that not only enjoyed each other but actually thought together, studied together, and showed an interest in the various facets of the Civil War. It reminded me of the indispensable role of the family in education. As the late Presbyterian theologian and Greek scholar, J. Gresham Machen, once said, “The most important Christian education institution is not the pulpit or the school, important as those institutions are; but it is the Christian family. And that institution has to a very large extent ceased to do its work.”
Few Christian parents know their nation’s history well enough to be able to provide help for their children in this matter. All truth requires careful study and interpretation, tasks that involve such “secular” subjects as history and philosophy. Christian families need to work toward developing a Christian mind in these areas; and they should do this in partnership with every other member of the family. I believe it is our failure as parents to fulfill this role that is at the root of so many of our nation’s problems today.
This road of teaching our children cultural literacy isn’t an easy one. It will take lots of hard work for parents who chose it. America’s public school monopoly certainly won’t help. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress tested for knowledge of U.S. history in 1994 and again in 2001, more than half of high school seniors scored below basic, which is as low as one can score. In no other subject, including math and science and reading, do American seniors score as low as they do in U.S. history. More than ever, Christian parents need to become the vanguard of the fight to overcome the nation’s abject ignorance of its own history, including the causes and conduct of its costliest war.
October 7, 2003
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. He is currently finishing his latest book, Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.