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An entertaining civic education

Barrett Rainey
Second Thoughts

I’ve just seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Were I put in charge of this nation’s public education system, no student would graduate from any high school without seeing it. Twice. Once in the freshman year – again as a senior. It’s that important.

As I remember, when a kid of about 13-14 is assigned American history studies, most approach the task with as much zeal as being asked to eat sawdust. The pages are flat. The information is boringly black and white. The names uninteresting and hard to connect with reality. Watching “Lincoln” at that age would change all that. These are real people sprung from dusty and mostly forgotten lessons. You cannot see and hear them without learning. And feeling. It’s just not possible.

William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Stanton, Edward Bates and ol’ Abe himself are now – to those kids – just so many names to remember for some meaningless test. But in the hands of Spielberg and the superb actors he chose for those parts, there is flesh and blood – depth of character – motivations for their actions – ample reasons why they should be remembered for their importance to our history.

The second required exposure – at age 17-18 – would provide a review and a perspective not possible the first time around. It would bring together lessons learned since the first exposure – lessons about real people – fleshed-out, ambitious, patriotic, honest – and not-so-honest. They would understand how things happened. And why. Added to other lessons learned over those intervening years – and with more maturity – the second viewing would create an indelible memory “stamp” to last a lifetime.
All of us learned Abraham Lincoln was a great president who ended slavery and was assassinated at Ford’s Theater. As a kid, you accepted those facts and closed the book. History learned.

But scholars want us to know more. Republican Lincoln was a wheeler-dealer who “bought” votes to abolish slavery using the power of patronage. He passed out government jobs as rewards to those who’d abandon their own political party or their pro-slavery positions by voting for the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many were offered to Democrats who’d been losers in recent elections and were looking to hang on. Do most people today know Lincoln used paid lobbyists to win his victory?

How many young people know Lincoln – while pursuing a devastating and bloody war with other people’s sons – tried to keep his own out of the army using presidential power to have his son’s enlistment rejected? How many know his own cabinet and party strongly opposed him? How many know he had his wife committed to an asylum? Or how he bored many contemporaries with fables, jokes and stories? Or that he made house calls on members of congress to get votes? And much, much more.

Are all – or any – of these things important for high school students to learn? Should these and hundreds of other little-known facts about Lincoln – the people around him – the gut-level battle to kill slavery – the human facets of all involved – the weaknesses and corruption and human frailties – should these be important and remembered by more Americans? You bet!

Spielberg and screen writer Tony Kushner stayed very close to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” The whole warts-and-all history is laid out on those pages. Excellent and award-winning history. Spielberg brought it to life in detail seldom seen in an adaptation. For nearly three hours, what we watched was life. And not one boring minute!

The actors seemed submerged in their characters – especially Daniel Day-Lewis who became Lincoln. His complete transformation erased any thought I had that he was just “playing a part.” Day-Lewis – more than any other actor or element of production – made history real and erased from my mind for all time any previous attempt to understand that complex martyr. It’s a characterization that’ll always define his career.

One of the great failures of our educational system is all-too apparent in the lack of knowledge of government by far too many citizens in this country. Our most recent election – clouded in off-repeated lies and smothered by nearly a billion dollars of excess – was the latest proof. Some knowledgeable estimates are that – nationally – more people voted against something than for something. Many in exit polling exhibited little to no understanding of real candidate positions or many of the ballot measures they’d just acted upon. Asked to explain their votes, far too many could not.

Many voices of protest and ignorant outrage raised in our nation are those of people who don’t understand their own government. They fear it largely because they have so little knowledge of it, why it exists, how it works or their role in it. They see it as some far-off, impersonal object they can’t define. “Them” or “it.” They want “it” to do things “it” can’t or stop doing things “it” is supposed to do. Widespread civic distrust – centered in such lack of understanding – is threatening our institutions.

All voices of ignorance? Of course not. But when someone lacks the basic knowledge of what is real – of what is right – subsequent exposure to information that is NOT real or which doesn’t comport to actual fact, serves to undermine our civic process.

If more protesting voices had been exposed to history as told in “Lincoln,” I believe they’d better understand government, its role and how it works. Or, when it doesn’t. And why. What we need is more such information masquerading as entertainment. Not less.
I”m grateful to Steven Spielberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner and every actor and production member of “Lincoln.” The excitement – the understanding – the experience – the knowledge. It should be required education.

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