In Memoriam

by Guest Blogger
May 21st, 2014

Memorial Day weekend is my favorite few days of the year. I surround myself with friends and family, and I’ve got the whole summer ahead. But even though I gladly partake in typical beer and burger festivities, there are always quiet moments when I wish more of us—including me—devoted more of our holiday to remembering. Remembering is a form of honoring, and that is the very least that those who have given everything to our nation deserve.

Last week I described Core Knowledge as education for liberation, a P–8 extension of the liberal arts idea. With a Core Knowledge education, one of the many wonderful things a person can choose to do is remember. Because I remember the sacrifices of American service members, I smile nonstop through Memorial Day weekend. I smile knowing that our founders (all of them, not just the Founding Fathers) hung together, not apart. I smile for the Union, which nudged our nation closer to its ideals.  For those who defeated tyranny and dictatorship. For those who died trying to bring the freedoms we take for granted to others. I smile when I think of what could be, but for today’s service members; you’ll see me grinning when I’m stuck in traffic to honor those who enable me, a woman, to drive.

If I’m not smiling, it’s because I’m worried about all the young people who are not getting a knowledge-filled, liberal arts education. What does Memorial Day mean to them? I’m sure most youth have a general understanding, but is that enough? Not for me. To honor soldiers’ sacrifices, we must remember the details of what they were fighting for, why, where, under what conditions, against what odds. Research shows that most of our youth do not know these things. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress in U.S. History, 55% of 12th graders scored below basic. Lest you think that’s a high bar, here’s now the basic level is described:

Twelfth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to identify the significance of many people, places, events, dates, ideas, and documents in U.S. history. They should also recognize the importance of unity and diversity in the social and cultural history of the United States and have an awareness of America’s changing relationships with the rest of the world. They should have a sense of continuity and change in history and be able to relate relevant experience from the past to their understanding of contemporary issues. They should recognize that history is subject to interpretation and should understand the role of evidence in making a historical argument.

That most students—even as they are becoming eligible to vote, be jurors, and join our armed forces—are not performing at this level is shameful.



Gettysburg national cemetery courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


The Common Core standards for English language arts and literacy are designed to diminish such ignorance. But they call for greater knowledge for the sake of increasing reading comprehension, not for the sake of remembering; a close reading of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address won’t suffice. A more reasonable place to turn is social studies standards. Sadly, the hodgepodge of documents I find (including a damning review of state standards, a proprietary set of national standards, and a new inquiry framework) only shows me why students know so little history. Inquiring may or may not result in learning. The quality of the questions and the rigor of the responses both matter.

Core Knowledge students know that a “house divided against itself cannot stand” (Sequence p. 134). They know what it means to make the world “safe for democracy” (Sequence p. 180). They know about a particular “day that will live in infamy” (Sequence p. 184). They know why we celebrate Memorial Day. And that makes me smile too.



  1. To paraphrase a Harvard physics professor talking about the basic knowledge needed to think like a physicist: “Before one can think like a historian, it is necessary first to know quite a lot of history.” Too bad the Common Core people think a couple of “documents” are all that students need to “Deeply” read and to “Deeply” think about. Superficial, and part of just one more wave of anti-academic “reform” in American education. See Diane Ravitch’s book Left Back.

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — May 21, 2014 @ 10:27 am

  2. “I am an American.” What does that mean? Without history and civics content implanted in your brain, it can mean anything any demagogue says it means. Currently Glenn Beck fills the vacuum for too many of us. This is very dangerous. Schools need to get back in the business of giving “American” its meaning.

    Comment by ponderosa — May 21, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

  3. Very nice. My thoughts *exactly*.

    For the first 40+ years of my life, I had no real clue what Memorial Day was all about. It is only after 9/11 and my reading since then about the military and how under-appreciated they are, and especially, the deaths of local young men in Iraq and Afghanistan (including MOH recipient Robert J. Miller) that I have started to learn. To show thanks and pay tribute in my own small way, I wrote several “In Memoriam” pieces at my old blog for these brave young men. One was awarded the MOH – Staff Sgt. Robert J. Miller (see here if interested).

    Even though it is a somber and subdued type of feeling, Memorial Day has become one of my favorite days of the year, for all the reasons you mention. Thank you Lisa.

    Comment by Jeff Brokaw — May 21, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

  4. Great reflective article on the importance of Memorial Day and the importance of thinking about history.

    Comment by Debra Kay Robinson Lindsay — May 5, 2015 @ 2:12 pm

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