West Dallas Community School

Monthly Archives: January 2016

Don’t Know Much About History – Part I

by wdcs

This phrase is often associated with Sam Cooke whose voice is called “incomparable” by Rolling Stone magazine, which ranks him as the #4 singer of all time.  His voice has a special place in my heart, as Cooke’s version of  “You Send Me” was the selection for my first dance with my wife, Dorothy, at our wedding.  While I later came to prefer his gospel songs, many of which were recorded with The Soul Stirrers, it was his 1960 classic “Wonderful World” that served as my introduction to the music of Motown and Sam Cooke.

It was 1982 and my older brother had left for college, leaving many of his albums behind, among them a soundtrack where I discovered this love ballad with its refrain: “But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too, What a wonderful world this would be.”  I was a typical middle school kid, with my mind focused more often on friends and young teen crushes than my classes.  Maybe that is why his song resonated so much with me at the time:

Don’t know much about history,

Don’t know much biology,

Don’t know much about a science book,

Don’t know much about the French I took,”

While I can sing Cooke’s hit by heart nearly 35 years later, today, I find the lyrics a bit sobering.  In the fifty years since the song was recorded, students’ ambivalence about school has increased while their knowledge of our nation’s history has decreased – see attached article.

And while I sympathize with supporters of STEM, I think the humanities—especially history– need to be safeguarded for the sake of our students as individuals and our nation as whole.  At West Dallas Community School we hold the study of history in high regard, and what better way to make history come alive and cohere than a trip to our nation’s capital!

Every year we take our 8th graders to Washington DC and Williamsburg.  One of my favorite views in Washington is seen from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial – looking across the tidal basin you see the White House, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln monument, and on a clear day, the Washington Cathedral in the distance, rising above the city in all it’s gothic grandeur.  I moved to DC right out of college and called our nation’s capital “home” for 13 years; this was the view I was most anxious to share with every friend and family member I had the privilege of hosting.  As a Native Texan, I am grateful to be back in our great state, but I am also thankful that West Dallas Community School takes this annual DC trip; ascending the steps of the Jefferson Memorial with our students is one of my great pleasures.

In all honesty, it isn’t easy competing with selfie-sticks and peer infatuation, but we endeavor, at each and every stop, from Williamsburg to Monticello, from the U.S. Capitol to The National Gallery, from Mount Vernon to Arlington Cemetery, to focus our students’ attentions on the beauty, riches, and lessons that each stop offers.

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And so, regardless of the crowds and the chilly temps, we gather to read and reflect on some of Jefferson’s “greatest hits.”  In years past we have huddled near Panel One and recited aloud key passages from The Declaration of Independence, which is rewarding, and fairly easy, since our students commit that document to memory.  But my favorite, which isn’t the best description because the inscription is haunting and eerily prophetic, is found on Panel Three.

Compiled from various sources, Jefferson reflects on slavery, concluding that, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”  And then he offers this:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.

With the thought of Jefferson trembling for our nation, we drive the short distance to the Lincoln Memorial and climb the steps made so famous by Marian Anderson and MLK.  Thanks to movies like Forrest Gump and Night at the Museum, this is a national landmark familiar to most young teenagers.  After our students are sufficiently dumbstruck by the size and awe-inspiring presence of Lincoln’s statue, we move to the south chamber.  While I have great reverence for The Gettysburg Address, I prefer visiting the north chamber where three large panels display Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

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It seems as if Lincoln answers and affirms Jefferson’s view of the inevitability of God’s justice; Lincoln delivers a speech to the nation that wrestles with the theological notion that the Civil War is divine retribution on our nation for the sin of slavery and wonders how a nation who prays to the same God can be so divided.  It is too long to include in it’s entirety here, but Lincoln concludes his theological and political reflections with this:

The Almighty has his own purposes… If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses…and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? …if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Even with the Civil War raging on for yet another year and the fatalities rising to well over half a million, though the war had taken a tremendous toll on him personally, and despite those around him calling for revenge, Lincoln concludes his inaugural address with these words of hope and healing:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

I pray this trip inoculates our students against the sort of historical amnesia and ignorance of which Sam Cooke croons, not armed so much with dates and names that will win them points in a Jeopardy-style quiz game, but with a deeper understanding of history, the sort that wrestles with the great speeches and big ideas of our past presidents, that recognizes, yes, our nation’s short-comings and failures, but appreciates key moments of heroism and aspirations of greatness.

You might reasonably ask, to what end?  I realize I have made a claim for the importance of the study of history without defending that position. Next month I’ll revisit Sam Cooke, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln and ask: Why Study History?

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Bentley Craft
Head of School