I remember when I was a kid, and my mother saying, “I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since D-Day.” She had been a WAC, stationed in Egypt at the time. My father (whom she had not yet met) was shooting at Messerschmitts and other German fighters from the waist of a B-25 over Italy, Romania and other eastern European countries. The success of the invasion was the beginning of the end of the war in Europe and, despite the last gasp at the Battle of the Bulge the following winter, essentially sealed Germany’s fate.
Well, she’s gone now (for over twenty years), as is my dad (over thirty) and so are most of the participants in that event. The youngest of them are in their mid-eighties, and slowly, the greatest, most destructive war in history is passing from living memory. How many veterans of Gettysburg were still alive in 1930? That battle, combined with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi to Grant the day after that famous union victory, similarly sealed the fate of the Confederacy. It is said that after Reconstruction, Vicksburg refused to fly an American flag for decades, until the thirties. If so, it’s probably because, by then, few were around to remember that ignominious and infamous day in the city’s history.
The passing of that generation would be less poignant, and unsettling, if we were preserving their memories, and properly teaching our children history. But given the disastrous state of both public education and academia, we cannot rely on the next generation knowing anything about that longest day:
I playfully launched in to a mock exam, using the small images of each of the war’s principals from the front cover. “Okay, who’s this?” I demanded, pointing to the visage of Winston Churchill.
From my friend, silence. And a blank stare. ”Uh, alright,” I hesitated unevenly, “how about him?” I pointed to Stalin.
“Oh, Franklin Roosevelt, I think,” offered my friend earnestly.
Mental panic was setting in. “And this?” I pointed to Hirohito.
“ . . . Gandhi?”
Our impromptu exam ended with howls of laughter from my chair, and a red face in the other.
You don’t need to be a history fanatic to recognize most of those men. And if you’re, say, an elementary-ed student expected to teach the subject, it’s helpful to know the subject, right? And preferably before you pick up a book on it . . . “for kids.”
But here’s the thing: my friend is smart. An “A” student, attending a respected university.
For all the talk about lesson planning, creative learning, compassionate engagement, etc., from the education reform crowd, how often is it asked: Do our teachers know their subjects?
Sadly, the answer in many cases is “no.” Worse yet, the texts are too focused on the contributions of lesbians and African-Americans and Siberian-Americans and on how awful and wart-filled is our history (we enslaved people, but didn’t lose six-hundred thousand white men to free them) to pay attention to things like the ideas of those evil slave-holding Founders, or the people who stormed a beach sixty-seven years ago to liberate a continent from totalitarianism. And the price we’ll pay for it in the future may well be the need for another D-Day, particularly when we have a president who seems to be unfamiliar with that history, or that of the Middle East.
[Update a while later]
Here is Ernie Pyle’s dispatch, published almost a week after the fact.
[Update early afternoon]
More D-Day memories. There are as many amazing stories from that war as there were participants. I’m actually a little surprised that there are as many as 1.7M vets left.