On May 12, 1962, General Douglas MacArthur returned to the West Point Military Academy to receive the Thayer Medal. It was his last time appearing on such a grand stage and at the institution he had superintended for several years. After receiving the award, he gave a speech for the ages; words addressed to the young military cadets — many to be involved in America’s wars shortly after.
As he spoke, he banged his fist on the podium as if driving the words and the principles into the minds and hearts of the young American soldiers; his passion for soldiery and the Army bleeding out across the phrases. His speech remains most memorable.
The speech reminds me of something the great writer, James Baldwin, noted, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us.” It is so true.
As the fall teaching semester ended a few weeks ago, I had a few moments to think about the experiences of my students and what might have been valuable. I was hoping they learned a few things in the subjects taught because a decent class should leave one, both students and instructors, with some questions to ponder — some things to think about. After all, as historian and writer David McCullough says, “History is human.” Some students say they come to class with predetermined ideas about how the class might turn out. Some of those ideas are confirmed for them, but thankfully, others are not.
Historical things are historical things, yet my aim is always to help students “see” history in a new way or through a new lens. A charismatic leader shapes history, but the how and the why is always a new investigation. Historical things revolve around people, places, classes and decisions. All of these involve meaning.
Students come to classes with the power of their ideas and experiences and many of my projects are designed to get them out in front of their peers to share these things in an open forum. As great as our evolving technology is, it often keeps us personally isolated. Speaking face to face, and the many different interactions it involves, is still an important skill worthy of developing. Everyone should be challenged to give a speech or a talk in front of peers and colleagues. Being able to navigate such an experience is a great teacher. I try to teach history, but I also try to teach some valuable skills through the journey of a course. Moreover, the peer projects also help the students with the “courage” factor. Whether each one has a little or a lot, they are better because of the projects.
Getting back to McCullough, history is human. I believe through the semester the students learn more about how the personal and the historical can relate. Seeing oneself in history and having an active voice in making history is often a wake-up call for many students regardless of age, race or background. Learning some things about the art and literature of certain historical time periods or events brings us all closer together as learners. Such learning helps to break down walls of misunderstanding and bias. We seem to learn more about what connects us instead of what divides us.
It sickens us all at times to have to remember how evil deeds are done from an often indifferent heart of man. Looking at some historical moments and events, we certainly saw how fear can get the best of some people, and how such said fears made people do things which were morally convulsive. Still, those same energies also created great courage in many others in helping to stand against fear and injustice. Learning about people and events from different perspectives presented the students with a challenge to fight the same things in their own times. And that’s important. That’s worthy. Arriving at that destination should be one goal of every course.
When General MacArthur came to the close of his speech in 1962, he said, “The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished — tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. ... But in the evening of my memory always, I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.”
He was passionate about the place he was speaking at and about the motto of the corps he served so long.
History teaches us all about the passions of other people through time, both good and bad things. An understanding of such passions might help the rest of us appreciate life more, and such may be the best purpose of a history course.