Speech for Veterans Day Assembly (Nov. 10, 2014)

Students, my fellow staff members, parents, and of course our special guests, our veterans. Thank you for being here today for our Veterans Day assembly. This one’s going to be a little different, judging by last year’s program, but I think we did a pretty good job of putting this together. Thank you to our teachers, and to the students and my new friends in the community who have helped us along the way. And of course, thank you to our veterans for their sacrifices, big and small, that they have made in our name.

I also have to say that one of the many things I love about my new home is the strong but quiet patriotism I have seen since I arrived in July. Every New England town that I visited on the way in, I saw American flags hanging from most homes and businesses. I wasn’t expecting this. Back where I’m from, people sometimes fall into two categories: reflexive, self-hating anti-Americanism—or if they are patriotic, it’s chest-thumping, fear-mongering, and a little scary. Not much in the middle. Here, regardless of our politics, the patriotism is everywhere, and it’s confident. It’s quiet. New England is where this country began, New England is proud to be American, and New England has nothing to prove. That character is reflected in the men I’ve met so far: Gilles Laravee, Larry Robarge, and Bill Adams among them.

So honored veterans, if you’ll permit me, the rest of my message today is to our students. Students, you have two jobs.

The first one is easy. If you’re out and about tomorrow on Veterans Day—or any other day—if you see one of these nice men and women and you know they served, and they’re wearing their cool veterans stuff, not busy doing something important, simply walk up and say, “Thank you for serving.” It’s important that they know you appreciate what they’ve done.

The second job I have for you takes a bit more effort. Starting now, I’d like each of you to think about social studies—also known as history, politics, geography, government, that stuff—here at the Ed Fenn, and later in the middle and high school, and in college. Don’t just take these classes because adults make you take them. Pay attention. Learn something. And then, read up on them on your own. History and geography and so on are important things. In the context of today’s assembly, they are the most important.

We are surrounded by our special guests, the veterans. And our veterans, whether they wanted to or not, lived social studies. And yet, for every standardized test we make you take for reading, math, and even science, we do not test for social studies. In fact, American principals and teachers don’t discuss them in any kind of systematic way, the way they talk about reading, math, or even science. We need to know about how we interact with our friends and enemies around the world. When we have used our military correctly, it’s because we were smart. We knew where the fight was and what it was really about.

When we have made mistakes in going to war—and we have made mistakes, like any country–it was because we did not understand other cultures. We didn’t know the land, the people, or why they were fighting us in the first place. We didn’t appreciate the history of where the fight took us. For example, we have been at war now for 13 years, in Iraq and Afghanistan, two far away countries. And yet by 2006, five years after we went to war, sixty three percent of American adults could not find Iraq on a map of Asia, or could tell you that it’s even in Asia. Nine out of ten could not locate Afghanistan.

That survey was given eight years ago, but I would bet that the results today would be largely the same. And if you can’t do that simple thing, locate a country on a map where are men and women are dying, possibly as I’m speaking today, you probably cannot understand the ancient, complex cultures in those places. Far more important than any map is the human story of the world, which you have to learn, so that maybe one day we’ll stop fighting wars at all. And that starts here. With you. So learn about your history, the globe, and other people around the world. Don’t wait for there to be another war to learn these important lessons. And I hope our veterans would agree with me.

That’s all I have to say about that. For now.

Now, let’s start our program. …

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