For many, Memorial Day is regarded as the official kick-off of summer – in Massachusetts, the start of the season of backyard barbecues, beaches, and boating. But in communities all across America – small towns and large – we’ll also see lively parades with marching bands, and breathtaking images of veterans’ memorials and cemeteries adorned with rows of Star-Spangled Banners.
In the 150 years since the Civil War, Americans have shown remarkable dedication to the annual ritual of honoring the one million service men and women of the United States Armed Forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their country and its founding philosophy.
These brave soldiers gave their lives in defense of our enjoyment of the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness – and the rights codified in our Constitution – especially the freedoms included in the First and Second Amendments – that our people still hold so dear.
Memorial Day as we know it became an official federal holiday in 1971, but it takes its roots from informal “decoration” ceremonies held in both the North and South after the Civil War. Given the holiday’s origins, we think it is fitting to honor soldiers this year by presenting a video of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson, the keynote speaker at our recent forum, “The Legacy of Lincoln: US History in American Schooling.”
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In the video, McPherson provides useful commentary on one of America’s most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address:
“”Four score and seven years” in the past, said Lincoln, “our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty.” Today, in 1863, our generation faces a great test whether a nation so conceived can survive. In dedicating the cemetery on this battlefield, the living must take inspiration to finish the task that those who lie buried here so nobly advanced by giving their “last full measure of devotion.”
“Life and death in this passage have a paradoxical relationship: men died that the nation might live, yet the old Union also died, and with it would die the institution of slavery. After these deaths, the nation must have a “new birth of freedom” so that government of, by, and for the people that our fathers conceived and brought forth in the past “shall not perish from the earth” but live into the vast future, even unto the next millennium.” – James McPherson
The Civil War killed approximately 625,000 Americans and another 405,000 were wounded. There were 10 battles with combined Union and Confederate casualties of 17,000 or more. In Vietnam, 26 Americans died for each day of the war; that number was 416 people in World War II. From 1861 to 1865, daily Civil War deaths averaged 599.
The Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the American military’s first official Black units, is memorialized directly across the street from our State House.
Sadly, it now appears that most of our children will never know these historical facts and human realities. That’s because student scores on national testing have seen decades of decline. National Assessment of Educational Progress results show that only 22 percent of US students test proficient in civics, and only 18 percent rate proficient in U.S. history.
In Massachusetts, passing a basic U.S. history MCAS test had long been scheduled to become a high school graduation requirement for the Class of 2012. But in 2009, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education abandoned it. As a result, history courses are being replaced with additional courses in tested content areas.
If schoolchildren are going to have an understanding of the importance of these soldiers’ sacrifice, they need strong instruction in US history. Polling data show that Massachusetts parents, teachers, and state lawmakers support restoring the state assessment in US History as a graduation requirement.
Two Pioneer Institute reports, “Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools,” and “The Rise and Fall of the Study of American History in Massachusetts,” note the general lack of understanding of American history in our society, because of how we teach history in K-12 schools.
With the Commonwealth’s students missing out on studying the Civil War, the time has come to restore our history to its rightful place in Massachusetts schools by reinstating the requirement that students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school.
“America will never be destroyed from the outside,” Abraham Lincoln said. “If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” The nation’s ongoing war of neglect of its own history is making President Lincoln’s words sound eerily far-sighted.