Guest Commentary: History teaches us to value freedom

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. – As one soldier, his uniform in tatters through years of bloody combat, charged the hill toward another man wearing another army’s colors, neither could have fully imagined what was at stake that day.

Even the name of the town held no special meaning for either army – it was just another meaningless Pennsylvania town.

Freedom was at stake.

But Gettysburg certainly has meaning today, just as Bunker Hill, Iwo Jima and Normandy were special. What was at stake, on the hills at Gettysburg and the beaches at Normandy, was freedom.

Freedom and liberty are a couple of those words that are difficult to understand – until you don’t have them anymore.

Most Americans have known nothing else but freedom, although there have been constant threats through the years to the rights guaranteed in the signing of the Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776.

Ignorance is threat.

Since the downfall of the Soviet Union, ignorance seems to be the most dangerous threat to the survival of the greatest democracy the world has ever known.

All you have to do to realize this is watch Jay Leno hit the streets looking for answers to basic American history questions.

One contestant, when asked which country the United States won its independence from, answered “Iraq.”

Another didn’t recognize Mount Rushmore and said President Kennedy was the speaker of the Gettysburg Address.

If we’re to write this off simply as a late-night talk show stunt, several studies prove we could be in trouble.

Knowing your history.

A Department of Education report on the knowledge of American history of 22,000 students in all 50 states showed more than 50 percent of all high school seniors were unaware of the Cold War and almost six of 10 didn’t have a basic understanding of how the United States became an independent nation.

In another survey by Luntz Research, 59 percent of teen-agers could identify the Three Stooges, but only 41 percent could even name the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

But the ignorance isn’t restricted to young Americans. The National Constitution Center interviewed 1,000 adults and found 24 percent couldn’t name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only 6 percent could cite freedoms of speech, press, assembly and religion.

Why does it matter?

Why is this so disturbing? The survival of democracy depends on an educated public, especially when it concerns constititional rights. The architects of our independence knew this.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson said, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

Some argue that schools just don’t teach American history anymore. If kids are to learn about what happened Dec. 7, 1941, they must do it in a theater.

Parents need to step in.

That’s where parents must step in. If they’re not learning even a basic knowledge of American government and history, teach them at home.

Somehow, they must learn the significance of Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima and Gettysburg and how what happened in those places led to the freedoms we enjoy today.

If you didn’t learn when you were in school, take the initiative to learn now. After all, the Fourth of July was not merely a day to play with fireworks or a day off from work.

If that’s all we see in this day or in freedom, maybe it’s fortunate those soldiers at Gettysburg could not see the future.

(The author is a senior airman in the 319th Air Refueling Wing, U.S. Air Force.)

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