I Wonder if They Know?


JN Fenwick, former U.S. History teacher, author, and editor In the Eye of the Storm and In the Aftermath of the Storm


All my life I’ve been a lover of history. When I was a girl, historical biographies were among my favorite books. I’d get lost in the past, but I learned as well. I learned about our Nation’s history and the history of the world at large. As I passed through each era, I also learned how similar we really are from generation to generation. Sure, every generation likes to think of themselves as the most enlightened, the most inspired. And perhaps, in many instances we are. After all, some of the most profound revelations, philosophies, and inventions are the result of such enlightened minds no matter the time in which they lived.

I’ve studied my share of philosophy too. From ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, to more modern schools of thought, each one brings to bear insight and wisdom. Especially when looked at through the lens of the time in which they were written.

Which brings me to my current dilemma. As a teacher of history, not just a lover, I’ve begun to wonder, in this day and age of social media and talking heads, how many of this current generation take the time to discover history for themselves, rather than through the eyes of Hollywood, the media, even their professors, and teachers in general? It’s long been held that the majority of these factions are liberal in their thinking. Not that that’s a negative thing, per se, but it is one-sided with the information presented in a particular light.

Additionally, how many of today’s youngsters really understand how to distinguish fact from opinion? Know how to apply critical thinking skills to the things they read and hear? Care enough about the future to truly look into and understand the foundations of the past?

In our own Nation’s history for example, I wonder if they know:

That the United States is not technically a democracy. Rather than a pure democracy, the U.S. is a republic, or more accurately a representative democracy. Why is this important? For a number of reasons, but most importantly it’s significant with respect to how our leaders are elected, how our laws are made, and whether or not the “will of the people” actually represents both the majority AND the minority in election outcomes. In a pure democracy, leaders are elected by the voting majority, leaving the minority largely unprotected and underrepresented with regard to the outcome. In a republic, on the other hand, the rights of the minority are protected from the will of the majority.

The will of the voters is reflected in the actions of the state electors. These electors are selected by political parties at a state level and in many cases are bound by law to vote in a way consistent with the results of the popular vote. | Michael Ray |How Does the Electoral College Work?

That the Democratic Party was once the pro-slavery party of the South. That many of its most noted members were part of the wealthy, plantation-owning Southern aristocracy. That the delegates that represented the Southern states at the Constitutional Convention argued against outlawing slavery as part of the new Constitution. That the compromise that tabled the slavery question for twenty years or so was ultimately part of the discord that eventually led to the Civil War. On the one hand, the new Constitution had little hope of being ratified had this compromise, like so many others, not been reached, but in the end, the ramifications were far-reaching and tremendous.


On a trip to Washington, DC in 2012, I stood at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. I got chills, just as I do every time.

That Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican elected President of the United States. That the Republican Party itself was established in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery into the newly expanding western territories. As President, Lincoln led this country through one of its bloodiest conflicts, the Civil War. He authored the Emancipation Proclamation and released it just as the South was on the verge of receiving aid from Great Britain and France. This ingenious maneuver successfully squashed any hope the South had of gaining foreign assistance, effectively setting the stage for the Union to prevail. Yes, the author of the Gettysburg Address, was one of our greatest Presidents. Who knows how different Reconstruction might have been had he lived to serve out his second term?

That initially, the Civil War was not a fight to end slavery. Far from it. Although slavery became an issue when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the immediate cause of the bloodiest conflict in American History was actually a Constitutional principle: State’s Rights, or the division of power between the federal government and the states.

The arguments surrounding the principle of State’s Rights became heated in the 1820s and 1830s over the question of whether slavery would be allowed in the newly expanding western territories. The North argued for containment, while the South favored expansion. This disparity became significant with regard to the Senate, especially as those western territories began to apply for statehood. With each state allotted 2 Senators, it became imperative to maintain a balance between slave and free states if the political interests of each region were to remain relevant.

The argument came to a head, so to speak when Kansas applied for statehood. Would the new state be a slave state or a free state? This question led to legal, political, and physical battles (See Bleeding Kansas) until a compromise was reached in 1850 (See Compromise of 1850).

Lingering resentment over this compromise, along with the election of the Republican candidate as president ultimately led to the secession of the Southern states and the forming of the Confederacy.


The Treaty of Versailles, 1919
Image courtesy of History.com | VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images

That at the time, WWI was considered to be the “war that would end all wars.” The very treaty that ended the war, however, was perhaps the very reason this prophecy failed. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, forced Germany to accept full responsibility for starting the war and to pay enormous reparations to the Allied victors. It also imposed harsh economic and demilitarization penalties on the country. The treaty not only humiliated Germany, but it also failed to address the underlying causes of the war, thus effectively setting the stage for the rise of Adolph Hitler, the Nazi Party, and WWII barely two decades later.

That one of the greatest historical events of the 20th Century was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Construction of the Berlin Wall began on August 13, 1961. The official purpose of the Wall? To keep Westerners from entering East Germany and undermining the socialist state. More notably, the Wall prevented massive defections from East to West. The Wall would stand for almost three decades, dividing Germany between East and West Berlin, separating families, and serving as one of the most visible symbols of the Cold War.

On November 9, 1989, the leader of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens could cross the border between East and West whenever they desired. In the days that followed, thousands of people crossed the border, some using hammers and picks to chip away at the Wall. Cranes and bulldozers pulled down section after section until the Wall was no more.

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the defeat of communism. More importantly, the fall of the Wall symbolized freedom and the restoration of basic human rights.


The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989
Image courtesy History.com

And these are just a few of the historical facts often overlooked or left out of textbooks and teaching in general. I have come across so many others in my own studies and research. Yes, I had to dig a bit deeper; go beyond just what was presented on the surface. Ask the tough questions. But most of all, I had to absolutely refuse to take everything I read, heard, or was taught at face value.

As a teacher, I encouraged my students to do the same. To be the drivers of their own education. To allow their curiosity and desire for knowledge to lead them down unexplored pathways. And most important perhaps, to use their knowledge to think critically and to form their own opinions on the issues, whether current or historical. 

Knowledge after all is a formidable tool. But one that only truly becomes powerful when it is applied.

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