My Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. . .
Because my sister relocated to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania just two weeks ago to start a fantastic new job, my mom and I came down to visit her this weekend, which, incidentally, happened to fall on the 148th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863. Spending July 1-3, 2011 here in this historic place helped me to make an important realization: that I am utterly in love with Gettysburg and have been since I was a child.
I recall that the first time I ever heard of this town was when I was in third grade and my cousin, who was in 8th grade at the time, was selected to recite Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address at our little town’s Memorial Day ceremony. I was fascinated watching her recite the entire address and that same day, my Grandma Katen gave me her copy of the 1992 World Almanac because the massive volume contained a reprinting of Lincoln’s address. I spent the rest of the day memorizing this speech. Then, when I was in eighth grade myself, I felt I should continue the family tradition, so I auditioned and was chosen to recite the address. Then, three years later, when no other student was interested, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked me to recite it again as a high school junior and I was happy to have another chance. Then, coincidentally, my first year of college, I took an honors seminar entitled “American Eloquence.” It was a course that examined famous American speeches and each of us were asked to choose one class meeting during which we would be responsible for teaching the class and leading class discussion. I was thrilled to be able to teach class the day we’d be discussing the Gettysburg Address. It seems that this beautiful, elegant, and timelessly powerful speech has haunted me my entire life.
Needless to say, one of the most moving things I love to do when in Gettysburg (I have visited numerous times for day trips on family vacations) is to visit the site where Lincoln gave his now-legendary oration. The purpose of his speech was to dedicate the National Cemetery, where the bodies of soldiers—both blue and gray—would be interred. This time, on Friday—the anniversary of the start of the battle—I stood at the Gettysburg Address Monument inside the National Cemetery and recited the speech from memory. It was really a surreal experience. I know I’m something of a nerd, but to be there, at that site, at the precise location where those words were first spoken—by Abraham Lincoln, no less!—and to reflect back on when I first learned that speech before I had ever even known the significance of Gettysburg or the battle that was fought there, was beyond overwhelming.
Reflecting on this particular moment pushed me to think about history and its educational importance to us. We’ve all heard George Santayana’s sentiment that, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is true, it is our ability to look at our present and draw parallels to our past that can keep us from ever making the same mistakes. In this sense, the history of us ALL is remarkably similar to the history of each one of us. In our personal lives, all of us only have our own past from which to draw wisdom and insight and the same applies to us all collectively. Just as we move forward as individuals armed with knowledge that revealed itself to us in our personal pasts, we also move forward as a community, as a nation, as an entire civilization, armed with the knowledge that comes from remembering where we have been. This is perhaps one of the most priceless treasures possessed by humanity—our collective past.
So, as an advocate of education, especially for young people, I can’t help but then ask the next question that impulsively materializes in my mind: How do we safeguard our past and convey it to future generations?
I’ll be the first to say that I do NOT believe that the teaching of history or its importance can happen through poor excuses of educational methods such as worksheets, vocabulary flash cards, or multiple choice exams. Nor do I approve of this idea of “assignments” for students. I memorized the Gettysburg Address because I WANTED to, because it mattered to me, and because it was rewarding to me. Because of my own personal history with this text, I will always carry warm and affectionate feelings toward it. However, had I been forced to memorize it by a teacher, I probably would always associate it with coercion, chore-like learning, and many of the other unpleasant things one associates with school. Why do we do this to our children?
This inspires me to write yet another blog entry, but for now, I’d like to leave you with this: I wish that all things could be learned by all children with the same voracity, love, and reverence that came naturally to me when I decided to study this text of Lincoln’s. And, as an adult, years later, I appreciate it in ways I never could have imagined as an elementary student. Shouldn’t education look like this?