Stop Historical Illiteracy, Visit a Park

Fort Vancouver : NPS PhotoOur National Parks preserve much more than just our wild places. Our Parks are also the guardians of our historical heritage. I was reminded of that import distinction while preparing the Time magazine piece earlier this week. In that issue, in a column titled "Why History Matters", managing editor Richard Stengel writes:
Being an American is not based on a common ancestry, a common religion, even a common culture--it's based on accepting an uncommon set of ideas. And if we don't understand those ideas, we don't value them; and if we don't value them, we don't protect them
It is easy to understand the idea of preserving a landscape for future generations. But, it is more difficult to imagine how values and ideas can be protected in the same way. We use education to foster these ideas and pass them to the future. But what if the future isn't listening? The best selling author and historian David McCullough is worried about what he describes as the historical illiteracy in America. In an interview with Powell's Bookstore in 2005, McCullough shares his thoughts:
I think [that part of the] problem with education in our country is us. We're not doing anywhere near enough as parents or grandparents to talk about history with our children, to talk about the books we've loved about historical subjects or figures. And taking our children or grandchildren to historic sights; we can't leave that for the schools because they don't do it much anymore. Reinstate the dinner table conversation. ... There's nothing wrong with the idea that you'd talk about history or current events and politics at the dinner table. Every night. Go with your children to Fort Necessity or Monticello or someplace like that. They never forget it. It changes their life.
As I read McCullough's words the first time, I remembered my own experiences as a kid visiting some historic parks. I have vivid memories of the facilities and living history at Fort Vancouver. The giant walls built with massive tree trunks was amazing to me at 6 years old. I remember too, visiting the Klondike Gold Rush museum in Seattle as a child, staring through a stereoscope at 3-dimensional photographs of the city so many years earlier. It is difficult to say whether either visit had a direct influence on the person I've become. Instead, it's probable that having the opportunity to engage my young mind with hands on activities and talented interpreters was an important part of the process of lifelong learning and appreciation for our country's history and heritage that I have today.