What’s a Bayonet?

The student raised his hand and stunned me.
“What’s a bayonet?” he asked.
If any single object might symbolize early American history, it’s probably the bayonet—specifically British bayonets.
Armed with these weapons, the British soldiers abused their authority over the American colonists, provoking those same colonists to launch a revolution that changed the world.
Although I explained to my middle school history class the facts about the bayonet—a dagger attached to a gun’s muzzle for close combat fighting—the boy’s question continued to haunt my mind.
If middle school kids know nothing about bayonets, what kind of history are we teaching them?
I’m not talking about promoting weapons or violence. My point is about straightforward history—the kind of history that used to be taught in schools.
Apparently, those days are gone.

Lord Cornwallis surrenders to General George Washington

The new Common Core curriculum assures us that kids will score high on standardized tests. A fine and worthy ambition and outcome.
But from what I’ve observed in my own sons’ public schools, the emphasis in history class is on vague social studies that give broad overviews—and completely miss the point.
For instance, my son’s high school history class covered WWII. Terrific. But when I asked him about it, he said, “It’s all about the politics. We learn almost nothing about the battles, except maybe casualty numbers.”
He also added, “It’s a lot more boring.”
Our kids need to know what actually happened, person-to-person on the ground, throughout history. Nothing teaches that better than military history.
That’s why the Great Battles for Boys books take young readers into the fight. Boys read about smoke-choked battlefields, the deafening sounds of gunfire and artillery, the cries of the wounded and dying. And by extension, they’ll understand how the world came into its present configuration.
Here’s a good example. In 1914, Europe had a country called Austria-Hungary. In 1919, all the European maps had to be redrawn because that country was now divided into Austria and Hungary—plus brand new countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Estonia.
What happened?
World War One.
Deadly battles.

WWI soldiers in a trench at the Battle of Gallipoli

World War One killed about 10 million soldiers. Some estimates place civilian casualties just as high. But those numbers seem almost meaningless without taking kids to the battlefield. Poland exists because soldiers fought and died.
A recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that only 18 percent of American high schoolers would be considered “proficient” in US history. In other words, one of every five high school students might—might— be able to answer a question such as, “What sword-like weapon was used by the Red Coats to control the American colonists?”
Some history curriculums aren’t even covering the American Revolution. A few years ago, a North Carolina school district proposed teaching kids only what happened after the year 1877.
No Civil War.
No Emancipation Proclamation.
No Battle of Gettysburg.
Which brings me back to Common Core.

Artillery on Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg

Common Core teaches our kids about the Gettysburg Address. But the curriculum gives scant attention, if any, to the Battle of Gettysburg. Meanwhile, that battle and its devastating loss of life were what compelled a grieving Lincoln to pen those words as he rode a train to the blood-drenched battlefield.
As one teacher told the Washington Post regarding this disparity, “This is baffling, as if Lincoln delivered the speech in an intellectual vacuum; as if the speech wasn’t delivered at a funeral and meant to be heard in the context of a funeral….”
Soaring words rose from battle.
Sacrifices made for freedom came in battle.
The Gettysburg Address is not some empty platitude from history; it was born from battle—a battle that involved bayonets.
There’s a legitimate concern about safety here. School shootings have pushed our already beleaguered teachers into a quandary. The mere mention of weapons—say, bayonets—frightens school administrators about yielding to another Columbine.
The worry is understandable. It’s also misguided.
These same kids are going home after school and playing video games like Call of Duty. They watch Hollywood movies in which guns magically fire more shots than any pistol is designed to hold.
Our kids are getting educated about weapons, but most of the information is wrong.
Authentic history is often devastating. And that’s the point. As writer George Santayana pointed out, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Military history leaves an indelible memory on those who receive it. By not teaching our kids about battles and how they were fought, we commit a huge disservice to them—and doom ourselves to repeat the past’s mistakes.

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