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All Gave Some, Some Gave All…

Several years ago I was asked to speak to a group of teenagers at a local middle school on the topic of living an ethical life. As I faced the class that day, filled with 30 teenagers who had no interest in why I was there or what I had to say, I realized that Veteran’s Day was the following week.

When I brought that fact up in passing, very few of them had any idea why they were getting the day off.  Not a clue.  All they knew was that they could sleep in and play video games all day if they wanted on November 11th.

A bit of history: Our country has been recognizing members of the military who put themselves in danger or lost their lives in service to our country since 1919. Veteran’s Day started as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I at 11 AM on Nov. 11, 1918.

Here are some other facts:

  • There are 23 million veterans in the U.S., about 11% of the population.
  • There are about 2.2 million WW II veterans still living, with 850 passing away each day.
  • 39.9% of civilian veterans are over the age of 65.
  • 6 million served in WW II, 4 million served in the Korean War, 8 million in Vietnam, and 3 million in the Persian Gulf War.
  • Over 5,000 have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Florida is home to over 1 million veterans.

We must instill an appreciation in our children for our veterans, both living and dead, and we must do it with intention and purpose. It is one way young people can be thankful for our country and our freedoms rather than merely enjoying a day off from school.

I find it ironic that Veteran’s Day is also celebrated in the same month as Thanksgiving, which has its own historical significance. Bulletin boards in schools across the country will show Pilgrims and Native Americans, turkeys and pumpkins. Many elementary level classrooms will produce plays about the first Thanksgiving, but I’m wondering how many will do the same for Veteran’s Day.

However, in order to be “thankful,” one must be “aware and appreciative of a benefit.” That might be the problem. How can children be thankful for an event if they don’t have the facts about it and thus no awareness of its significance? It’s true that inequities and divisive issues exist in our society, but do those outweigh the rights that we do have, many of which citizens in other countries envy but aren’t allowed to enjoy? Kids need to know the human sacrifices that have been made for them. Maybe then they can appreciate our veterans and their historical relevance to life in this country today.

An irate parent contacted me once and demanded to know why the school system was “teaching patriotism.”

I explained that it is the law in Florida, through legislation put into place in 1999 stating that all schools in the state implement a character development program. The legislators even listed the traits that must be taught, and patriotism is on that list. However, in order to accomplish this with intelligence and true intent, schools must move beyond a pledge and a song every day, the brand of authoritarian patriotism that demands unquestioning loyalty to a centralized leader or ruling entity. We could see that in any classroom in Cuba or North Korea. I think that angry parent was envisioning this type of rote, unquestioning version of the “truth” dictated by others.

Democratic patriotism deals with the people, principles, and values that give steel to the foundation of our government and way of life. Things like political participation, free speech, civil liberties, fierce independence, and social equality. Things like the people we honor on Nov. 11th each year.

It also includes the mistakes made and the successes attained over the past 234 years. And in this regard some historical theorists, and probably that parent, believe there has been movement to restrict such critical analysis of events within the school curriculum. Here in Florida in 2006, a law was passed that stated "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable." But, some feel that the bill's designers view historical literacy merely as the teaching of facts. Does this ban historical interpretation in public schools, thus shutting down critical thinking? It is an interesting debate.

And that is the point. Living an ethical life and being a good citizen in a democracy demands critical and independent thinking rather than blind acceptance. It requires that our citizens have the facts necessary to enjoy the richness and complexity of our way of life and the freedom to discuss those facts, as well as a commitment to the truth.

And that is a richness embodied in holidays like Veteran’s Day.

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