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? (more…)