A Day to Honor a few Great Men

December 4, 2005

700 words

For publication on Monday Feb. 16 or thereafter


INDIANAPOLIS — As a President’s Day exercise, I asked the 30 students in my 8th grade U.S. history course to write a paragraph on a president of their choice — someone they considered "worth honoring" on a holiday that most people celebrate by shopping for bargains.

Four selected George Washington and five picked Abraham Lincoln, the two men for whom President"s Day was established. Eleven picked Thomas Jefferson, three picked John F. Kennedy and one vote went to each of the following: John Adams, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

In Jefferson"s case, I suspect students were influenced by the fact we had just finished studying the Lousiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark expedition, two accomplishments that distinguished Jefferson as a visionary seeking to consolidate U.S. power and protect citizens from potential aggressors.

In all cases, students stressed character traits that showed leadership, sacrifice, intellect or concern for freedom and justice. Here"s a sampling:

"George Washington was the first and possibly the best president in our young nation"s history. Even though Washington did not want to be president at first, he felt it was his duty to serve and command his country. According to Matthew Spalding in The Founders Almanac, "Washington led a revolution to rout out monarchical rule in America and establish a republican government based on the rule of law." " — Adam Katz

"The new nation needed a strong leader to guide her through trials and misfortunes. Washington knew this was important to everyone so he became president. Despite being a reluctant leader, he led the country, understanding how important it was. This act of unselfishness is what all people need to be great." — Molly Cheesman

"Thomas Jefferson was a man of vision and leadership. He spent most of his life dedicated to the young country he worked to create. Under Jefferson"s presidency, the country"s size was doubled and the young nation became one of the fastest growing in the world." — Eric Burger

"Abraham Lincoln changed the world he lived in. He implemented Jefferson"s ideas about slavery by abolishing it and making the U.S. more free." — Clay Garrison

"In the spur of the moment, he (Lyndon B. Johnson) went from vice president to president. As the late President John F. Kennedy once said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." While still wearing some of Kennedy"s blood and awestruck that the (assassination) occurred, Johnson pulled himself together and took on the United States of America." — Emily New

In just a few sentences, these students reveal why it"s worthwhile to study the great leaders from history. Past presidents serve as role models of what citizenship and civic engagement should look like.

Sadly, people today are reluctant to lift up historic figures as examples for young people to follow. Perhaps they want to avoid the irrational controversies that have surrounded the likes of Washington and Jefferson who, on the one hand, declared all men equal, yet on the other hand kept their fellow men as slaves. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with teaching that great people are nonetheless flawed).

Historian Richard Brookhiser, author of "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington," laments that teachers too often stress impersonal forces of history and neglect the role played by individuals. "We have lost the conviction that ideas require men to bring them to earth," Brookhiser says.

ERIC, the national information system funded by the U.S. Department of Education, has long stressed the importance of learning about George Washington as someone who fundamentally shaped our nation.

"By what criteria should educators decide to emphasize a person in history?" asked Thomas S. Vontz and William A. Nixon in a 1998 ERIC article, "Teaching about George Washington."

"Extraordinary goodness or virtue should not be the sole standard," they said. "Instead, the touchstone for inclusion should be whether an individual"s achievements have significantly shaped events in his or her country or the world. By this criterion, George Washington merits strong emphasis in the school curriculum."

Add to the list Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy etc. As Brookhiser put it, ideas require men to bring them to earth. That"s what President"s Day is all about: A few great men. Let"s quit pretending there aren"t any.

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