We're in a unique position to pass the torch of history

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” – Patrick Henry

They aren’t the most famous lines that Patrick Henry delivered in St. John’s Church in Richmond on March 23, 1775. But with this speech – better known for the line “give me liberty or give me death” – America’s founding firebrand invoked the power of history to light the way toward a better future.

Understanding our past is no less essential today to building a better future for our country. Even so, we realize the fundamental knowledge of America’s story, of our founding principles and our common national inheritance, is increasingly hard to come by.

Last year, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that 72 percent of respondents to a national survey either didn’t know or weren’t sure which states were among the original 13. Less than a quarter knew why the American colonists had fought the British. Most Americans also cannot name the three branches of government, according to survey findings from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. More than a third can’t name one right guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The news about younger Americans is even more alarming.

For years, our national zeal for STEM-centered education has driven social studies to the back of the classroom; as a result, our children haven’t learned much of it. The last assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that 29 percent of American eighth-graders demonstrated “below basic” knowledge of U.S. history. Another 53 percent fell into the “basic” knowledge category, with just 18 percent registering “proficient” or better.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Older Americans can help change this narrative. How? By passing the torch – that illuminating lamp of experience – to younger generations.

In this age of short attention spans, echo chambers and shouting in all caps, there remain thousands of opportunities for older and younger Americans to turn away from the noise and connect at the sites where America was made.

Now more than ever, younger Americans need to hold history in their own hands, feel its pulse beneath their feet. At birthplaces, workplaces and family homes of presidents and generals, artists and inventors, and the millions of Americans enslaved. At sites of military battles and of protests for political and social change. It is at these crossroads of past and present that grandparents, great-uncles, aunts and others can share with younger generations what they have lived and seen of America’s story, what they know and were taught of it themselves, and why it still matters.

They can inspire a deeper understanding of – and interest in – our history. And in the process, they may just renew and expand their own.

We believe in the power of historic place, and of connections across the generations, because in our respective lines of work we witness their effects every day. This is a potent formula for change that we feel an urgency to share. For if we do not reverse our collective, downward spiral into this cultural amnesia, it will be our nation, and everything for which it has historically stood, that will pay the price.

We are experiencing the effects already.

According to the latest World Values Survey results published in the Journal of Democracy, almost three-quarters of those born before World War II considered it “absolutely important” to live in a democratically governed country. Just 30 percent of millennials – those born since 1980 – felt that way. If this is not a long-term threat, we’re not sure what is.

But there is hope. By visiting the past and rediscovering our historical roots, we come face-to-face with America as it was – and can truly understand how far we have come and envision the possibilities of how far we can go. We owe it to our younger generations, and ourselves, to take this journey together.

The possibilities stretch from sea to sea, from Ellis Island to Pearl Harbor. We focus on U.S. presidents because few people of the past have wielded a broader influence on the events and culture of their times than America’s presidents. Knowing these remarkable individuals better – as people, and as reflections of their eras – can redefine our understanding of America’s past and present and guide us toward a better future.

Whether it is George Washington’s resplendent Mount Vernon estate in Virginia that captures your imagination, or Abraham Lincoln’s extraordinarily humble beginnings in a (since re-created) one-room cabin in Kentucky, go there.

Tour the White House itself in Washington, D.C., or visit the Ansley Wilcox House in New York, where Theodore Roosevelt first took the oath of office, and consider how William McKinley’s assassination thrust Roosevelt onto the world stage.

Virginia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas, California – no less than 21 states have given rise to U.S. presidents, and yet more are home to other unique sites of presidential history worth getting out to see and experience.

As the late Dr. Gene Cohen, a renowned psychiatrist and expert on creativity and aging, pointed out, older people have served throughout the ages as our “keepers of the culture.” Transmitting a lifetime of knowledge and experience from an older person to a younger one can inspire dreams, create careers, spur innovations and provide a fulfilling life.

As our nation struggles to find a common purpose and a national identity, a journey to rediscover our American roots can be a first step in coming together to envision and build a better America for our children and grandchildren and future generations.

That’s what “passing the torch” is all about.

Jenkins is CEO of AARP. Reiss is President and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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