We Americans owe our freedom to a heritage going back 4,000 years. Yet most High School graduates are only taught about the past 300. This cultural heritage tells us who we are. We are not defined by blood or soil, but by our culture; those core beliefs and folkways that bind us together. Culture determines what we believe is worth living, dying, and even killing for. Wherever our personal ancestry originates is far less important than the Western Civilization we share in common.
The history of the West tells us how to gain, lose, and live with wide-ranging personal freedom. Our emphasis on the intrinsic value of each human being comes with risk. As we cherish the individual, we depend on the spontaneous and active cooperation of each citizen, no matter how obscure, for the very survival of our Republic. In the West, it is not only a privileged ruling class that must bear the burdens of responsibility. In our society, we all must be adults. Such self-motivation only stems from genuinely understanding how our freedom is at stake in every choice we make.
The primary purpose in establishing mandatory education was and remains to train active citizens. As memory is for the individual, so history is our shared cultural memory. History examines the meaning behind events with a focus on our ancestors’ motives and intentions. As amnesia can steal a person’s identity, no culture can survive if it fails to pass on its unique understanding of the significance of events from generation to generation. History cannot tell us who we will become either individually or culturally. That is for each of us to decide. However, only by understanding history can we truly grapple with who we are right now, and what we should next do.
For decades, the systematic teaching of the history of Western Civilization has been eliminated from most schools. Functionalists decry it as being of marginal value in the development of “life skills.” Modernists deem the past to be a distraction from building a better future. Utopians believe that human nature will evolve only when future people no longer recall anything but their “perfection,” as if teaching about the catalogue of human evil is what causes it.
Most students today graduate high school having never needed to know what Hammurabi, Moses, Pericles, Cincinnatus, Caesar, Paul, Constantine, Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Ivan the Terrible, Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, John Locke, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (to name a very few) did to make our world. Even with Civics, U.S. History, and Government requirements, most students really do not understand what makes our Constitution special, because they have never been purposefully taught what a society without it looks like.
It requires more than the study of the United States to understand the United States. Only by studying our Republic within the broader context of human history are our free society’s unique characteristics truly evident. If citizens no longer know why freedom matters and how it is cultivated with civic duty, then it will wither and die. Only when the heritage of freedom is a living presence in the lives of citizens will freedom thrive.
We must return a coherent study of the history of Western Civilization to the mandatory curriculum of every high school student. Requiring one year of Ancient & Medieval History, followed by one year of Modern European History, are the minimum steps necessary to systematically teach every graduate what it means to be free.
Ralph K. Ginorio is a Coeur d’Alene resident who teaches at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy.