What does this have to do with the West, you ask? Thanks for asking. I recently had a discussion with a friend about our respective visits to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Of course, I’d heard of “Custer’s Last Stand” all of my life but I didn’t have much appreciation for circumstances that led up to the battler nor did I really have much empathy for what the various people involved experienced. That all changed once I visited the battlefield. I thought the docents did an amazing job of not only telling you about what happened there but also helping you to imagine how it looked, felt, sounded and smelled. They brought it to life so vividly that I get a chill even now as I remember the experience. When I subsequently drove around the battlefield area, I was able to visualize what it must have been like in a way that I never would have if I had only read about it. I could imagine the Indians streaming over the hill and how terrifying that must have been for the troopers of the 7th Cavalry as they realized death was imminent.
As a native Texan, I learned about the battle of the Alamo in school, of course. I also learned about it through the Disney series on Davy Crockett and the movie with John Wayne. I even watched the newer, allegedly more realistic version with Billy Bob Thornton. I have to say, though, that setting foot on that sacred Texas soil, first as a child and later as an adult, sealed the deal for me. I know that a terrible yet noble event took place there at that little mission that continues to reverberate through history. It has had a powerful impact on the way I look at the world, the way I view tyranny and the value I place on honor and bravery. I think about the choices faced by those everyday, regular folks who found themselves at an historical crossroads. They weren’t that different from you and me. I wonder what I would have done if I had been there. I wonder what I would do if faced with a similar situation now. History should make us think about these questions.
What I really want to convey here is that we have many different tools at our disposal now to help young people understand and appreciate history. Not only can they read about it in text books, they can watch everything from documentaries to television programs to movies that really bring historical topics to life. We have the technology to design interactive video games that would simulate the experiences and make them more real for us. We’re no longer restricted to dry text books and meaningless maps that we color (the colored map pencils were cool though, I’ve got to admit). One of our most powerful tools, after all the reading is done, the documentaries are watched, the video games are played, is to then set foot on the actual site where events took place and use our imagination. That is the piece that ties everything together. Like they say, you had to be there.