Why What We Do Is Important

Bruce Batten, First New Hampshire Regiment & United Train of Artillery

I am a teacher. Despite all the controversy about why Johnny can't read, I'll even admit to being a public school teacher. I teach in an inner city middle school where there are twenty three different languages being spoken and one third of the students come from atypical home situations. I'm also a reenactor. I use my activities as a reenactor as a tool to help teach American history to my students.

It is important to teach history because it is a fantastic story, it is a great drama. A drama full of heroes. We all love stories, especially stories about heroes. However, when most young persons are asked to name whom their heroes are they usually reply with the names of professional athletes or "Hip Hop" music stars. Rarely do they reply with the names of heroes from American history.

Can we blame people for not seeing the great people of our past as heroes? Given the age we live in, probably not. Peter Gibbon, a research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writing for the Los Angeles Times, feels that we live in an age where it is fashionable to deny greatness and drag down heroes. Right now in America no one appears untarnished or deserving of respect. During this information age, where nothing is secret, can anyone be above reproach?

It was not always this way though. Gibbon feels that the ideology of heroism was intact until the early part of this century. The idea of heroism permeated homes, schools, farms, churches and places of work. Heroism was found in novels, newspapers, sermons, on buildings, in advertising, on statues, and in the names given to children. Persons such as Harry S. Truman, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Stonewall Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Harriet Beecher Stowe were all shaped by the idea of heroism.

Did these people think that their heroes were perfect? Thomas Jefferson was the president who had a slave mistress, George Washington had a temper, Robert E. Lee was cold, Abraham Lincoln was passive, Albert Einstein mistreated his wife, John F. Kennedy frolicked in the White House pool, Lyndon B. Johnson was a bully and Richard Nixon covered up. Gibbon feels that people before us understood that heroes weren't perfect. They understood, "that heroes instruct us in greatness, remind us of our better selves, and that without heroes the past loses meaning."

It is important to tell the stories of the heroes of history. We need to tell the stories of the heroes who have made us what we are as Americans. People should be able to admire, copy and look to great people who can be examples of decent life. We all should remember that Thomas Jefferson wrote the words, "all men are created equal", that George Washington won the Revolution and shaped the presidency, that Robert E. Lee hated war, that Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and did not want to punish the South, that John F. Kennedy resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Lyndon B. Johnson helped get civil rights legislation passed, and that Richard Nixon opened relations with China.

In a time when so many people have feelings of hopelessness, where all the news seems bad and the name of the game is to feel good through immediate gratification, the stories of history's heroes, their sacrifice and perseverance, can show all of us that we do have hope. History's heroes can be examples to people who need to know that problems can be solved and obstacles overcome. Every time we as reenactors visit a school, talk to a spectator in camp or take to the field we are celebrating the heroes of the past. Our activities teach the valuable lessons of our heroes. Through our interpretations we are helping the past to not lose meaning. Maybe our examples will help some school child or spectator to walk away from an event with a better appreciation of the past and a belief that the future can be better.

Copyright © 2007 Bruce Batten. All rights reserved.