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.
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.”
A homeschool environment has the flexibility and focus that are essential to overcome the neglect that history so often receives in the twenty-first century. The opportunity that exists is a threefold one: academic, social, and spiritual.
Unfortunately, one can go quite far in the United States’ educational system before he actually learns about “primary sources,” which are sources that are closest to the person or event being studied. Much of U.S. education consists of the regurgitation of secondary sources, such as encyclopedias. Why not teach children at an early age that a project that quotes someone who fought in the Vietnam War is superior and more desirable to an encyclopedia article about the Vietnam War?
In addition to teaching children about primary sources, seeking out elderly who have actually lived through events will also give children experience with skills that are taught even less frequently than history—interview skills. At first glance, interviewing may seem to be a skill needed only by journalists, but on deeper reflection, conducting an interview teaches a student how to organize and prepare, how to obtain information, how to plan, and how to interact with people. In fact, conducting an interview will also better prepare a child for the time when he is the one being interviewed for college admission or a job.
Every parent who homeschools his or her child has frequently heard the criticism that homeschooled children are socially awkward because they do not have the opportunities for social interaction that children in a conventional school have. So why not take a potential weakness and turn it into a strength? Take the time and effort to investigate and get to know people at your local nursing home; in doing so, you will likely advance your child’s social development beyond that of his or her peers. Interacting with men and women who are decades older than themselves will teach children to communicate with people who live differently, think differently, and speak differently.
Adding interaction/interviews with the elderly to your history curriculum can also benefit children spiritually. They will learn that not everyone has been given the same privileges that they have been given, that sometimes bad things happen to people, and that God is still in control regardless of the circumstances. Children will also become acutely aware that there are people out there who cannot survive or function without the aid of others.
The spiritual benefit to children will be noticeable, but the benefits to the elderly men and women you are able to involve in your child’s education will even exceed the benefits enjoyed by your children. Those who reside in nursing homes live for visits. There are some residents whose family, church, and friends are constantly checking in on them, but there are also residents who rarely, if ever, have visitors from “the outside world.” Giving such an individual the opportunity to talk about his or her life offers more than just company; it provides the nursing home resident with a rare opportunity—a chance to be listened to.
How to Take Advantage of the Opportunity
Supplementing your child’s study of history with the amazing resource of the elderly, particularly those in nursing homes, is probably easier than you think. An admissions representative or activities director would be the appropriate staff member to contact in order to plan a visit, and such a staff person would also be familiar with the stories of the residents in their particular nursing homes. If you choose to go another route, the seniors’ pastor at your church, the local seniors center, or associations such as the local VFW would also provide good starting points.
As you go about the process of identifying elderly people whom your children can talk to, consider asking an elderly person to be a guest speaker. You and other homeschooling parents could organize a meeting in which someone who was a World War Two veteran or who spent a life as a nurse or who was a farmer could talk to a group of children about their lives and experiences and answer questions afterwards.
Historian David McCullough, a man who is certainly knowledgeable about history, refers to the American neglect of the subject in this way: “Never in our lifetime, except possibly in the early stages of World War II, has it been clearer that we have as a source of strength, a source of direction, a source of inspiration—our story. Yes, this is a dangerous time. Yes, this is a time full of shadows and fear. But we have been through worse before and we have faced more difficult days before. We have shown courage and determination, and skillful and inventive and courageous and committed responses to crisis before. We should draw on our story, we should draw on our history as we’ve never drawn before.”
A homeschooler is capable of drawing on that story in a way no educational system can rival. Discover the untapped gold in your community—and strike it rich!
Aaron Sharp is a Master of Theology graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently employed in the Information Technology Department of the ministry Insight for Living. He is a former Director of Community Relations at Prairie Estates Nursing Home in Frisco, Texas. Aaron also writes for Graphe Ministries and recently finished his first book for Discovery House Publishers, I Didn't Sign Up For This. He lives in Little Elm, Texas, with his wife Elaina, and as of April 2011, their son Micah. They attend Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas.
1. Survey conducted by Jeep and Goodmind and is available at www.media.chrysler.com/newsrelease.do;jsessionid=1949076D3D18F266A3E30F91BCD5B2F0?&id=1970&mid=46, accessed March 28, 2011.
2. The Economist. London: Economist Newspaper Ltd, 1843. February 17, 2011.
3. Statistics courtesy of United States census, available at www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0034.pdf,accessed March 28, 2011.
4. Statistics courtesy of Center for Disease Control, available at www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/nursingh.htm, accessed March 28, 2011.
5. The Economist. London: Economist Newspaper Ltd, 1843. February 17, 2011.
6. Cole, Bruce, “The Danger of Historical Amnesia: A Conversation with David McCullough,” Humanities, 23 (2002).
Publication date: July 27, 2012