Allow me to go all civics professor on you for a few moments.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. As I’ve been thinking about it throughout the day, I can’t decide if it seems like ancient history or a fire that’s just recently burned out. Sure, it’s not like I was around for it; but nowadays, very few people are left who were. To realize that we have a dwindling supply of eyewitnesses to the conflict that reshaped our world–culturally, geopolitically, and physically–is more than a little distressing to me.
The narrative of World War II is something that, at least in my own education, was drilled in quite early. I had read Lois Lowry’s Number The Stars before finishing elementary school, and I could more easily recall the Allied and Axis powers than I could my multiplication tables. In middle school English we were reading The Diary of Anne Frank, for both its literary and historic merit, and high school history was chock full of study on WWII, from both global and specifically American perspectives.
I suppose that’s because it was the defining conflict of the century; yet given how rapidly our world (or our understanding of and interaction with it) has changed in the past ten years, I wonder if the next generation will be educated from a different perspective. Nowhere in my American history education did we touch on America’s influence in the Middle East, save for briefly discussing the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, and even that was only from the perspective of understanding how Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter. It’s important to understand how America earned (or seized?) it’s dominant standing, but I would argue that it’s more important to understand how that standing has shifted and buckled since, particularly for students who weren’t even around during the presidency of George the First.
Another remarkable thing to realize is that my grandparents’ generation really had a pair on them. Briefly surveying the first half of the 20th century, you can’t help but be awed by their perseverance. Decades of simmering social change (continued industrialization, overwhelming immigration, women’s suffrage, early civil rights issues, and Prohibition), broken up only by two planet-spanning wars (the latter which came to American soil) and a crippling economic depression that some people saw less preferable than death. I mean, come on. Could you have toughed that out? I suppose the argument could be made that the current generation will find out soon enough. Are the worlds we live in so different after all?
I begrudgingly pitied my classmates who found history difficult (it’s not, really; just simple memorization), but I held nothing back from those who found it boring or useless. As far as I see it, you have no hope of understanding what’s happening now if you don’t understand what happened then. While I may think that, given the current global situation, our retrospective lense on world history needs to be widened (if not necessarily refocused), I also think that if we twenty-somethings really do have the path of our ancestors before us, then we had better learn from both their examples and from their mistakes.
The first act in doing so is to salute them for their efforts.