My seven year old got confused between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. She kept insisting that her first grade teacher taught them about Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the work he did to help people during the Civil War. It was a hilarious conversation as I tried to explain the two different time periods and what went on during each. She looked at me blankly, almost sadly, feeling sorry that I didn't have my facts straight and continued to insist that King was a great leader during the Civil War.
A friend of mine who teaches community college told me of a similar incident with her students. She gave them a test about the Civil War and in their essays, some of the students wrote about Martin Luther King, bus boycotts and the March on Washington. Are kids today just not paying attention in class or is it that this history, which seemed so recent thirty years ago, happened so long before they were born and is now so far in the past that it is tough for them to incorporate it firmly into their knowledge bank?
I remember growing up in the late 70s and early 80s and knowing old folks who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement, who had suffered under the Jim Crow laws of the South, who had been turned away from lunch counters, threatened for integrating neighborhoods and who had satiated their thirst at water fountains marked "Whites Only." These weren't stories heard in class or read in history books. These were tales told by grandparents, aunts, uncles, the neighbor on the stoop, my first boss, who was famous as one of a group who integrated a southern college with armed National Guard escorts, walking through a crowd of angry protesters spitting and hurling things at her. Even as a very young child, I vaguely remember once or twice taking road trips to visit grandparents without stopping because my folks were concerned that we might have trouble finding a motel that would be okay to stay at because we were black. So recognizing what the work of the Civil Rights Movement meant for underrepresented groups is something that feels so immediate. Yet despite exposing them to books, museum exhibits and movies -including one I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. - Our Friend, Martin - the Civil Rights Movement is still only a vague concept to my children (and apparently others), history that is in some ways as unconnected to them as the Boston Tea Party, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Women's Suffrage Movement. They don't understand the ramifications of those events in history, they only experience the benefits. Is it a wonder then that they can confuse the Civil War with the Civil Rights Movement?
I worry that in our rush to push only science and math in schools, we will continue to lose touch with our past - with a visceral understanding of people, events and social movements which dramatically transformed our world. I still get shivers when I think about the Hiroshima survivor who came to speak to my class in third grade. Her perspective on WWII and the bombing in the Pacific was something I never would have gotten from a history book, something that helped me understand that historical act in a way that was connected to a person, not something done to an anonymous group of people. It made me look at history differently, and unlike my children and many others today who mix up when Abe and Martin were doing their things, I will never confuse WWI with WWII even though both happened long before I was born.