Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Some time ago I bought a book about the Second World War. What made this particular book’s purchase notable for me was not its topic, namely, the Battle of Okinawa. The victory of the heroic U.S. soldiers on that remote Pacific Island is a historical event with which I was already familiar. It was not the author of the book; I had enjoyed his writing before, but just because a book was penned by him did not make it a must-read for me. What was unique about the purchase was the motivation behind the purchase.

I purchased this volume because over the last couple of years I have been privileged to get to know one of the few surviving participants in the Battle of Okinawa. This gentleman spends twelve hours a day with his wife at a local nursing home where I was formerly employed as a community relations coordinator. Through the recollections of one who survived the hail of bullets, endured the artillery’s explosions, and faced almost certain death for the cause of freedom, the fierceness of one of history’s most vicious conflicts has become more than black letters on white pages for me.  

My motivation to buy this book is revealing for two reasons. First, it shows that our culture’s elderly are a forgotten treasure of wisdom and experience. Second, it reveals academic, social, and spiritual opportunities that most educational systems are either unable or unwilling to take advantage of. History need not be viewed as something that has been written; rather, it is something that we pass on the street every day.

Hidden Treasures

It should come as no surprise that there are hidden historical treasures in the United States. Unless the four men whose faces grace Mount Rushmore were reincarnated and appeared in their own reality television show, most U.S. citizens would not know their identities. (If you can you name them, you are among the 13% of Americans who can do so, according to a 2005 study.) The problem was highlighted in a recent issue of The Economist, which commented that “many states emphasize abstract concepts rather than history itself. In Delaware, for example, pupils ‘will not be expected to recall any specific event or person in history.’ Other states teach children about early American history only once, when they are 11.”

It should come as little surprise then, given that Americans fare so poorly knowing history’s most important and famous people and events, that as a culture we live in the presence of historical treasures every minute of every day, yet we are ignorant of that fact. The treasures that I have in mind are not museums or books, but rather are the elderly men and women who lived history. 

In 2009, there were 37.8 million people over the age of 65 living in the United States. Think of the history that people 65 and older have seen and experienced! In the time that those people have been alive, they have seen every facet of life change: transportation, communication, work, entertainment. There is little about our society today that resembles life in the mid-1940s and earlier. History books relate facts, but the people who lived in and through events can tell a story.

A Threefold Opportunity

A child who is in the midst of a homeschool education has a tremendous opportunity when it comes to studying history. As The Economist summarized: “A broad effort to create voluntary national standards does not include history. No Child Left Behind, George Bush’s education law, tests pupils on maths, reading and science. On February 14th Barack Obama stressed the importance of teaching science, technology and 21st-century skills. Meanwhile America’s schoolchildren score even more poorly in history than in maths: 64% of high-school seniors scored ‘basic’ on a national maths test in 2009, but only 47% reached that level on the most recent national history test.”