Our Nation’s Heroes: Character Witnesses for Georgia’s Youth




By Benita M. Dodd

As Memorial Day approaches, the word of the week is “summer.”  Unfortunately, the true meaning of the holiday more often takes a back seat to barbecue. What is now simply the “unofficial start of summer” once was “Decoration Day,” honoring the troops who died in the Civil War. Today, it honors all the Americans who have died in military service.

The context is important. Schools are preparing to close after a year of struggling to impart not just academics but character. In some cases, it’s even tougher to teach character: Students’ role models have devolved. Yesterday’s “Hannah Montana” is today’s twerking Miley Cyrus. Many students go home to workaholic parents, single parents, low-income parents, immigrant parents, foster parents, grandparents … no parents.

What if the meaning behind Memorial Day was part of character education in Georgia’s schools? What if the Character Word of the Week on the marquee went beyond the nebulous concepts of teamwork, respect, tolerance, compassion, to name a few?

Few would dispute that the “character” that adults want young people to strive toward should be instilled through examples of real Americans. Highlighting ordinary people whose accomplishments are extraordinary tells students, more than anything else, that such character is not beyond their personal reach.

It’s fine, but rare, to achieve the status of a high-earning basketball player or entertainer. But the examples of those who have performed patriotic, heroic acts above and beyond the call of duty can leave students with a lifelong appreciation for the cost of Americans’ freedom and independence: a year-round Memorial Day.

There are few better ways to do this than by sharing the personal stories of the Americans who have earned honor for selflessly risking their lives so that we could live free and safe.

Georgia’s middle- and high-school students are learning just that, thanks to a new curriculum based on living recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Approved in July 2013 by the state Board of Education and spearheaded by the Georgia National Guard, the curriculum by the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation is supported by the Arthur Blank Foundation. (Arthur Blank is one of the founders of Georgia-based Home Depot.)

Today’s young students have little understanding of the value of citizenship, the cost of conflict and the price of freedom. War is a movie or video game. Most do not know anyone who has died in battle but many know someone who has been bullied or injured or killed in gang conflict.

“The whole idea of the Medal of Honor is to teach everybody that he has a role to play,” Medal of Honor Recipient Jack H. Jacobs explains on the Foundation Web site, “So it’s important to know the lengths people are willing to go because they feel so strongly about their fellow men.”

Based on video interviews with living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the curriculum carries a disclaimer: It does not glorify war or conflict but uses these individuals’ outstanding actions as vignettes on the values of patriotism, courage, commitment, sacrifice, citizenship and integrity.

Reaching students at the know-it-all teenage years is tough. This Memorial Day, it’s encouraging to know that educators’ efforts have been helped because they have a character curriculum based on honorable role models.

In these “gimme” days of entitlement and growing government, it’s a curriculum sorely needed. Everyone needs a lesson in individual responsibility and doing the right thing – without mandates. If the nation’s heroes can influence young people toward positive behavior and appreciation of the sacrifices made for their freedom, that’s even more promising.

About the Medal of Honor: The President of the United States, on behalf of Congress, has awarded the Medal of Honor – the Nation’s highest military decoration – to more than 3,400 members of the armed forces since 1861. Recipients have distinguished themselves by risking their own lives above and beyond the call of duty in action against an enemy of the United States, one reason it is often presented posthumously. Today there are 79 living recipients of the Medal of Honor.

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