Americans have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Whatever challenges we might face, many of us are blessed with friends and family with whom we will spend this holiday weekend.
As we gather with loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for something we all share — that we are blessed to be American.
It can be easy to forget how fortunate we are to live in this country — the only nation in the world founded on the revolutionary ideas that all men are created equal, and that we are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
These ideals and values define America as an exceptional nation, and they are the foundation that make possible everything else we give thanks for this week. And for nearly three centuries, millions of our fellow Americans have made extraordinary sacrifices to preserve these ideals.
If we fail to learn American history, it is difficult for us to truly appreciate all that we have to be grateful for.
In many ways the character of America was forged by Americans who came here long before we were a country. The earliest European settlers, such as the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving, were tough and courageous people. They left behind their lives in the Old World and made the dangerous journey to an unexplored continent to start over. And almost all of them did it for freedom.
This spirit came to define our nation. In the next century, it was what led a small band of farmers in Concord, Massachusetts to stand their ground against the most powerful military in the world, sparking the American Revolution. A few years later, it was what allowed General Washington’s ragged and tired army at Valley Forge to summon the strength to continue when the struggle seemed lost. And it was what led 56 men to risk their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
We owe an incredible debt to these Americans and to the millions of others who have sacrificed so much throughout our history to win and preserve the nation we love.
Today, unfortunately, we are doing a poor job of passing this lesson on to the next generation of Americans. We are seeing our nation’s memory of the past slip away as we fail to teach children about American history, including our founding principles and values.
The results of the Department of Education’s recent National Assessment of Educational Progress survey suggest how great a challenge this has become. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.
Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understand why George Washington was an important leader in American history. And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.
These statistics are alarming. We must do a better job of helping the next generation understand both our amazing history and the great privilege of being American.
This means that those of us who know how blessed we are to live here must find creative ways to tell the American story.
Children’s books can be a good way to introduce young people to American history. As the author of three children’s history books, I have visited classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time traveling pachyderm, with four- to eight-year olds. Most young people I meet are eager to learn and are excited to discover our nation’s pivotal moments.
Interactive online courses, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational video games like “Oregon Trail” can also teach critical history lessons. And of course, visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon or Independence Hall in Philadelphia are wonderful ways to inspire a love for American history.
This Thanksgiving, take time to talk with young Americans about American history — and to remember what a truly remarkable nation we have to be thankful for.
Callista Gingrich is the author of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the third in the Ellis the Elephant series for children ages four to eight. She is the president of Gingrich Productions.