I've spent the last several days travelling with my daughters and their school choir to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. on a performance tour.
I came away with two big thoughts that really dominated my experience. The first, which will come as no surprise, is that it's mentally and physically exhausting to travel with nineteen teenagers for four days.
The second: as much as I'm a big fan of technology in learning environments as a way to supplement and enhance learning, technology will never completely replace the live experience.
In Philadelphia, we took the tour of Independence Hall. We saw the room where the founding fathers argued about, wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It's a small room -- much smaller than I imagined. It's more than a little unnerving to stand in that room and picture them all crowded in there trying to write documents that would alter the course of history. I'm not sure I would have been able to do that.
In DC, we were on the Mall on Monday afternoon during the immigration rally. And while there were lots of police and helicopters, it was an amazing thing to witness a huge protest like that, and know that we live in a country where that is a recognized fundamental right. Many of the protesters weren't citizens, and I'm sure a number of them were illegal immigrants - and yet this is a country where even non-citizens are allowed to protest the policies of the government. We visited the Lincoln Memorial and read the words of the Gettysburg Address: "... dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." While we can fault Lincoln for not mentioning women explicitly, we should equally praise him for not limiting his claim to citizens, for making a more universal claim of fundamental rights for human beings.
My daughter got very emotional when we visited the Vietnam Memorial. Before the trip I had told her that I was looking forward to taking her to visit it, and that I still clearly remember my first visit twenty-plus years ago when Vietnam was still an open wound. Back then, this still-new memorial was highly visited, but everyone who walked through it was absolutely quiet (kids and adults alike). In my last three visits (all in the last year), the silence was gone -- people are still respectful, but they talk and comment as they walk through. My daughter thought that this was disrespectful, which is why she got so upset. But our tour guide this week made the point that the Vietnam Memorial had helped to heal the pain that the war had left -- and I think in retrospect the fact that people now talk as they walk through the memorial is a strong sign that we are well on our way to healing. It did make me wonder, though, what the memorial to Iraq war veterans will look like, how long it will take before we get around to building it, and beyond that how long we will need to heal.
The other shock for my daughter was in seeing the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. She found it appalling that we would build memorials using Greek and Roman architecture, creating places to place our leaders on pedestals (literally) and worshipping them as immortals. Nothing is more un-American than that. In all my visits to DC, that thought had never occurred to me.
Every school child should be lucky enough to visit Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. not for the sense of history, but for the sense of immediacy -- that we have a form of government that encourages active participation and involvement. You can try to get that from a textbook or the Internet, but there's nothing quite like seeing it in person.