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A haunting lapse in knowledge of history

By David Post
Trick or treat?
Answer my history question and get a treat. Or miss it and get a treat. But learn a little along the way.
As executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation, I was handing out treats at the Cyrus West House on South Main near City Hall during Downtown Salisbury, Inc.ís Halloween Fun Fest.
Hundreds of kids dressed like ghosts and Spidermen and princesses stood in line a block long, holding out their pumpkins or bags saying ěTrick or Treat.î Like Santa Claus, I love talking to kids, so Iíd ask, ěHow old are you?î If younger than 5 or 6, Iíd say, ěYouíre right!î and give them a handful of treats.
But, at age 8 or 9, the questions became more difficult.
ěWhere is the oldest house in downtown Salisbury?î They would look up and down Main Street until I pointed behind me and said, ěThatís it!î Parents would say, ěI didnít know that.î
Mostly, I asked, ěWho was the first President of the United States?î Behind me in the window of our shop ó standing right beside Andrew Jackson ó was a life-sized cutout of President Washington.
And there I was, dressed like George Washington. With my long blue coat, tan pants tucked into knee high black boots, a gold buttoned vest, a jabot ó that white lace collar Iíll never wear again ó and especially my snow white wig, I was the spitting image of our first president. Well, eight inches shorter and no wooden teeth. But close enough. It was Halloween.
When a child said, ěI donít know,î Iíd say, ěOh, come on. Who do I look like?î or ěWho is that guy in the window?î
Some shrugged their shoulders, said ěI donít knowî and began to walk away. I chased them down and gave them some candy anyway.
Some kids said, ěLincoln?î Lincoln? He was tall, slender and had dark hair and a beard. Iím short with light grey hair and barely need to shave my blond whiskers daily.
Or ěBen Franklin?î OK, my coat looked a little like Benís. But Iím not bald.
Some turned to their parents with an expression begging, ěHelp me out.î Most parents whispered, ěWashington,î but a few shocked me, ěDonít ask me. I donít know.î
Occasionally when a child was excitedly right, Iíd ask, ěWho was the second president?î A few guessed ěLincoln?î but no one got that one.
The funniest answer was a 9-year old boy who proudly announced, ěGarfield. Iím studying the presidents.î ěGarfield was the first?î I asked. He corrected himself, ěOh, Washington.î
My daughter, dressed as a dinosaur, was helping and estimated that 40 percent of the kids missed. Sheís prone to exaggeration, but not much.
Ouch.
Occasionally, I asked, ěDo you read every day?î
Some said they did, but too many said, ěNo,î looking at me with an expression that said, ěCan I still have some candy?î They got their handful.
The answer that shook me out of my boots was a child who said, ěI donít need to. Iím home schooled.î That stumped me ó surely thatís not indicative of home schooling ó so I gave him a handful of candy and scooted him along.
I donít know whatís wrong with our educational system, but something is. I wasnít out to do a social experiment. Maybe the kids were just too excited to think. I expected everyone to indignantly blurt out ěGeorge Washingtonî without hesitating.
The nation is agonizing over the lack of jobs. One of the drumbeats out of Washington is that the ěmarketî is the only engine of job growth. Markets are competitive. The United States has a smart economy, and employers want smart employees. Twenty five years ago, I worked for a large consulting firm. Universities are not graduating enough business students, so we just hired smart graduates from any field, with the idea that we could train smart people to be good consultants.
Weíre alsohaving this national debate about immigration policy. Immigrants are banging on the doors of our universities and innovative companies. We limit legal immigration and complain about illegal immigrants who sneak into our country. Somehow, they seem to find work here. The cost of college educations is rising faster than inflation. Federal, state and local governments are reducing spending on education. Performance isdeclining. The U.S. education system, once the best in the world, is now far from it.
Something isnít working.
Maybe knowing who the first president or reading everyday isnít that important.
Call me old fashioned. I think it is.

David Post is executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation.

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