THE MEANING OF A MEMORIAL

As a student of United States history this year, I’ve gained an increased understanding of the significance of our nation’s history in relation to my own life. Learning about each event that has shaped my country has given me significant insight into the importance historical moments have; each turning point has molded society into what I now call “America”. But I’ve come to realize that not everyone feels the same way I do about the circumstances that have caused our country to become the great nation it is today. Historian David McCullough once fearfully stated in a 60 Minutes interview that, “We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.” Growing up in Mamaroneck surrounded by many students that are somehow just as passionate about New Deal reforms and Andrew Jackson’s economic policies as I am, I originally found this statement hard to believe. But upon further examination, I feel that I am definitely living in a generation that is perhaps not “historically illiterate”, as McCullough claims, but “historically unaware”. People simply need to learn why history is important before they can find value in it. It’s true: many of my peers may not be initially enthralled by the concept of coming to see a memorial, regardless of how geographically close to them it is or how much it connects to their lives in a town rich with history. But a good number of those uncaring individuals honestly just don’t understand the true significance of a memorial, just as many don’t grasp why history itself is so important. What we must focus on as a society is stressing the importance of both memorials and the events being memorialized in order to create a more educated and historically aware group of young adults, thus creating an educated populous and an able-minded generation of future leaders.

Writer and philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” History is cyclical; anything I am experiencing now, my grandparents and great grandparents lived through it at some point in their lives. Economic recessions, debates over immigration regulations, the fight for the expansion of women’s rights – each large event in my lifetime can ultimately be traced back to something that has already happened in American history. This is why grasping and understanding historical concepts is so important. If we do not educate ourselves about the events that have happened in the past, how can we expect to make informed decisions on resolutions to problems we face in the future? If today’s U.S. leaders didn’t examine the ways former American leaders dealt with economic recessions, international conflicts, and social battles, how could they hope to effectively fight ones we face in America today? It simply does not make sense to ignore what’s happened in history so far when we attempt to rectify conflicts in the present and the future, and memorials allow us to easily remember the paths our predecessors have taken. Memorials take these historical turning points and concretely sanctify them. The names on the Kemper Memorial, for example, allow us to remember World War II as something palpable. Memorializing an event that we may have otherwise only thought about briefly in passing allows us to easily remember its colossal significance and keep its spirit alive not only on holidays, but also in our daily lives.

Understanding historical events is significant even just for the purpose of storytelling. There are some things in history, such as the Revolutionary War, the Vietnam protests, and the Great Depression, that we should just know simply to know, and to pass along to future generations. If your parents or grandparents have ever told you an anecdote from their own lives about something you’ve learned about in history class, then you know how amazing it is to hear a personal account of an enormously life-changing event. We don’t want to lose that incredible part of the American identity. We’ve always been a nation of storytellers and entertainers; it is part of what makes us such a novel group of individuals. If we stop taking note of historical events as we live them, this amazing part of American culture will be lost, and an important link binding each of us to our nation will be broken.

Memorials are as vital to the intellectual integrity of our society today as history lessons are. They serve as physical manifestations of the great events we learn about in history classes. They bring to life concepts and events that we sometimes cannot even fathom in ways that are incredibly moving; from the haunting empty chairs of the Oklahoma City Memorial, to the fatigued statues of the Korean War Memorial, to the scrolling names engraved on the Kemper Memorial, memorials allows history to come to life before our eyes. The fact that this vivid preservation of historical events is so underappreciated is utterly dumbfounding. How can we, as a society, actively avoid taking interest in the memorialization of events that have shaped our nation? The answer is, quite simply, that we are living in an age of increased self-awareness at the expense of world-awareness; the things most of us notice on a day-to-day basis are largely things of great personal significance. Other things we tend to ignore. Because of this, we must work to better educate ourselves about how memorials directly influence us. Of course, memorials take events in American history and celebrate them, but to someone lacking a deep interest in history, that reverence can have little appeal. Memorials possess something very personal, as well, and it’s something that is rarely touched on when people discuss them. The Kemper Memorial doesn’t commemorate just any World War II soldiers; it brings special attention to those who went to Mamaroneck High School. The soldiers who fought and died were from our town. They patronized many of the same stores, they walked a lot of the same halls, and they lived in a few of the same houses that we do. The Kemper Memorial gives us, as Larchmont/Mamaroneck citizens, a special connection to our town’s history. It allows us an opportunity to bridge any gap we may feel between ourselves and the history of our nation simply by spending a few minutes reading the names of the fallen soldiers with whom we share so much. By honoring the lives of such great Americans, the Kemper Memorial provides an accessible community outlet that gives us the opportunity to reach back to our roots. The Kemper Memorial, and those like it, remind us of the things that are truly significant: our families, our nation, and our history.

The idea that history is unimportant because it is “over already”, or that memorials aren’t important because they commemorate supposedly outdated events is ludicrous. History will always remain alive, because it is always being created. Memorials take events and people that we all need to know about and glorify them, allowing us to remember and cherish their importance. My generation is not a lost cause. We still have a chance to become “historically aware” and “historically literate”. And I believe a historically educated generation is definitely something worth fighting for.

184 Fillow Street, Norwalk, CT 06850, Url: khref.org, 203-855-9322