Dirt – or Instant Gratification?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the issue of battlefield preservation, and to the larger, broader topic of the preservation of any of our historical sites – be they land, buildings, monuments, etc. connected with any time period of American history.  I’ve been in discussions over the years, and even recently on this and other blogs, about the importance of saving our historical sites.  Opinions are all over the board, ranging from staunch preservationism to those who see no value in saving land such as battlefield property.

I think most of us see the arguments and debates constantly – witness, for example, the recent “Casino” situation at Gettysburg.  Or the threats of development to Chancellorsville and many, many other sites.

As I’ve been thinking about these preservation battles lately, I always go back to what I’ve witnessed with my own senses.  For instance, over the decades I’ve been traveling to historical sites (especially Civil War battlefields) I’m always impressed when families take their young children there.  My goodness, just go to Devil’s Den at Gettysburg on any weekend during the summer and you’re bound to see hundreds of pre-adolescents crawling joyously over the rocks.  Or near Burnside’s Bridge at Antietam, there may be families with young children having picnics.  At Stonewall Jackson’s wounding monument near the Visitor Center at Chancellorsville, maybe you’ll see young southern kids with their parents, going through the rite of passage of hearing about Stonewall and where he was mortally wounded, and the impact on the Confederate future of the war.

I emphasize the children when talking about preservation of historical sites, because that’s where the future is, simply put.  Kids today are bombarded constantly with demands for their attention – TV, cell phones, computers, iPods, etc.  And kids today want to be entertained fast and quick.  A minute of downtime and they’re bored, looking for something else.  They want instant gratification.

Battlefields, historical homes, monuments – even the nifty boulders at Devil’s Den are a form of instant gratification for the younger generation.  And it’s always been that way, even before the advent of our new forms of technology.  When that five year-old grows up, he/she may remember his exploits at Devil’s Den, or at the Bloody Pond, or Burnside’s Bridge, or atop Marye’s Heights.  And maybe he’ll want to go back.  Or take his/her kids there one day, and learn about what really happened there in the meantime.

An 8th grade class on the Civil War is hardly instant gratification.  Neither is a book in most cases.  But let them touch and feel their history (regardless of whether they understand the importance of the ground) and maybe one day it’ll touch them back.  Instant gratification.  That’s what Mt. Vernon, the Capitol, Arlington House, and Devil’s Den gives them.

It’s worth saving.  Every time.

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 1:49 pm  Comments (10)  

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  1. JD,

    This is something I have been thinking about as well.

    Here in New Jersey, we are down to homes, some battlefields, historic places of worship, and other historic buildings. And all of the historic building as suffering from the lack of funds.

    You are correct sir when you say the child of today wants to be able to TOUCH, to FEEL the history!

    I know there are those who have a difficult time with the Friends and the Rupp House at Gettysburg. But it is a perfect example of what you are talking about! You can feel the history!
    For instance. In the parlor as you first enter is a hands on display of all the tools of the trade the average CW soldeir would have carried. Weapon, cartridge box, haversack and bedroll. And the kids can TRY to pick it up! (Its difficult for the average adult to pick up let alone a child). BUt you can FEEL history…

    I have been asked repeatedly by adults both young and old alike (Happened a week ago last Friday on Little Round Top) how did I learn my history? My response, Turn off the tv, walk away from the PC, and turn off the ipods and put your nose in a book and read. Or get out and WALK a battlefield!

    Yes JD you are correct..


  2. I think this tendency to take an anti-tech perspective as a solution to the supposed lack of interest in American hisotry is unfortunate. As a high school history teacher technology is becoming more and more integral in my day-to-day routine. In fact, it’s the PC’s, iPod’s, etc. that are bringing students to a new and, in some cases, profound interest in the study of the past.

    We need to move these discussions beyond the overly simplistic line of thought that blames everything on modernity. My guess is that kids are no more or no less interested in history than my parents and their parents.

    The right question to ask is how can we harness/utilize this technology in a way that is conducive to serious learning. Fortunately, there are plenty of people already engaged in answering this question.

  3. Kevin,

    I don’t take an “anti-tech” reasoning for this – in fact, few are as “teched-up” (is that a word?) as me, or realize how much technology has actually expanded the study of history and made it available to the masses. My point was more to the observation that because of the demands on our children’s time, and how trained they have been to expect instant results, that the “hardware” of land and sites becomes all the more important. Just another reason, in my opinion, that these sites need to be saved.

    Otherwise, the only place you’d be able to see Mt. Vernon or Devil’s Den WOULD BE on a computer.


  4. Thanks, Jim – I agree that the closest you can come to history is by being there where it happened. We can never step back in time to be sure, but we can step through it.


  5. JD,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. You can read books, watch TV shows, or study a particular historical battle/event on a computer all day long. But step onto that particular piece of dirt, see the treelines, gaze at the fields, hills or mountains, and all that armchair study comes into FOCUS.

    These places give us perspective on who we are as a people and where we came from. In my humble opinion, a people and a culture that does not value its history is only a stone’s throw away from having a strong narcissistic view of its present.


  6. J.D.,
    I again don’t disagree with you on the importance of historical preservation, but I wonder how many kids who are climbing over the boulders at Devil’s Den are really soaking in the history or are just playing on some cool rocks. I just finished reading Andrew Ferguson’s “Land of Lincoln” and he has a chapter on the Lincoln Museum in Springfield. When I visited there, my first thought was “kids will love this, but it won’t teach them a damn thing about the Lincoln I know.” In fact, Ferguson writes that his wife mentioned to him that while there was a lot of talk about feelings and Lincoln, there were no rock solid facts that one could digest. The “Lincoln I know” I learned about by doing the boring things like reading books and visiting the sites BEFORE the professionals took over and sucked all the historical life out of things. I want historical sites to be preserved as much as anyone, but I’m cynical that unless you put some lights and loud obnoxious music on things, kids today won’t care.

  7. Rob,

    I understand your point… but “having the kids climb the rocks” is a start. That’s how I started. Even though it was more play time than anything else, something – something – sunk in back then. Maybe it was the walk through the museum, or the Electric Map, or something else. But there was the undeniable seed planted that the reason the rocks were popular, and the reason I and thousands of other kids can play on them, was because some great thing happened on that land. It was THAT that brought me back again and again, and here I am. I have talked to countless others who have the same story. They went to Gettysburg (or wherever) when they were kids – admittedly dragged along by their parents – but they had the urge to go back later and adults and learn about it.

    I also have talked to a good number of folks who’ve never really visited a historical site as an adult, and you know what they admit, almost without exception? That they never went to them as kids.

    It’s not a scientific analysis with a verifiable result, but in my opinion that early connection as children might – just might – lead to an interest later in life. And it also seems to lead to the theory that if there’s no exposure as a child, there’s less chance of them taking the initative themselves later on.


  8. Paul,

    You’re very right – and as I’ve said time and time again (especially when it comes to understanding the action that took place) NOTHING is a better teacher than the ground itself. It has changed my perspective as a student and an author, and has led me in my writings to modify my tactical analyses of various actions. As I’ve told my publisher and other students, I categorically refuse to write about an action unless I’ve crawled the ground myself. Even turned down one writing project because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go to the location in time and have enough of a chance to study it in detail. It’s only when I’ve become familiar enough with the ground and terrain (as it was then) will I put pen to paper. It gets difficult in areas where there’s development or other changes, but what we can see today still can’t be replaced by any other medium.

    Which also leads me to another observation I’ve made a few times, and I’m not sure that folks really dig it… do you know that the Gettysburg battlefield looks entirely different from horseback? Try it sometime 🙂


  9. JD,

    I’m with you.

    As you know, I have a young son – almost 4 now. Two of his (and my) favorite things to do are run up and down the steps on the PA monument and play what we call “our favorite game” on the grass around the US Regulars’ Monument.

    I cannot count the scornful looks and yes, even some voiced comments about the land being sacred and solemn and how inappropriate a running and laughing child is at that spot.

    Yes, I know what happened here. And I know it’s not an amusement park. But what I also know is my little guy walks up to me and says “Daddy, I want to go to my favorite monument.” For now – that means run and play. But some day, some time, he’s going to ask me why all this stuff is here.

    Lastly, I’m pretty comfortable in my feeling that given a choice, those who gave their lives here would prefer a giggling child to a somber adult any day of the week. Fortunatley, most of us get time for both.

    Preserve all you can.


  10. Wow, I couldn’t (and probably didn’t) say it better myself. I also feel in my heart that the veterans would love to see little children just being, well, children. I’m sure that in the decades after the war they did anyway.

    Years from now, your son will likely still see it as his favorite monument. And the meaning of it, beyond its historical significance, will be treasured by him. I know that when we first started taking our young daughter to Gettysburg, we’d let her (gently) climb the cannons and such. We couldn’t get her off the Devil’s Den rocks. I was passing on to her exactly what I did some years ago. There was no thoughts of computers, iPods, or cell phones. Compared to the carnage, horror and death that land witnessed, the silent sentinels in the form of monuments seem quite content to stand guard over the playing children.


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