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Technology won't replace learning

Feb 3, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

But it certainly has the ability to stifle it.

At 21 I read Bruce Catton's classic trilogy of the American Civil War, "Mr. Lincoln's Army", "Glory Road" and a "Stillness at Appomattox."

This exemplary history of the Army of the Potomac during American's most cataclysmic era should be required reading for every American's education. Sadly in this day of mandated testing and the constant drive to destroy the love of learning, it will never happen.

Part of the magic of the moment in reading these classics was the privilege of discussing these books with my favorite university professor, Everett Beach Long. He was simply "E.B" to the select group of students he invited into his home each year to study "Our War" as he referred to the Civil War. E.B. was Bruce Catton's chief researcher in writing these and other historical works, and E.B's wife Barbara was the illustrator in all of Catton's works.

It was an infectious academic atmosphere for a fledgling historian and one that I wish every serious student of the discipline had the opportunity to experience.

As a former high school history teacher and now a professor of history in the world of online college courses, I look back and envy the environment that E.B was able to provide. Sitting in his 5,000-volume volume library for a minimum of three hours every Monday night, with Barbara interrupting class each time to bring sandwiches, cookies, coffee and tea created a cozy yet challenging setting that, once again, I wish every student could experience.

But days such as these were rare even in my time and are much more infrequent now. Too many of my students attempt to mindlessly cut and paste answers to questions found on the Internet. Plagiarism is ubiquitous at the high school and college level.

Technology will never replace the intellectual stimulation that comes from gifted teacher and motivated student, (or vice versa)

Over the last two months I've completed a more-modern series on the history of yet another American war. Rick Atkinson's trilogy of the American army in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Northern Europe during World War II is a classic every bit the equal of the now nearly half-century old works of Catton.

Atkinson brings the war to life with the private thoughts of the great men of the age intertwined with the hopes and fears of terrified 18-year old soldiers and a mix of just about every kind of man in between.

Occasionally I run into the gung-ho "guns are always the answer" intellect that preaches "military discipline, military order, military brilliance."

Please. Anyone who has ever been in the military or experienced it in even the most ancillary fashion knows what a crock these statements usually are.

In the course of reading "An Army at Dawn," "The Day of Battle" and "The Guns at Last Light," you soon realize just the opposite. How we won World War II is a testament to adaptation and endurance in the presence of idiocy beyond modern comprehension.

As a historian I knew the precepts of Atkinson's subject, but the manner in which he brought the now fading past into bright focus was nothing short of miraculous. It is, without a doubt, the reason he is Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

In the course of approximately 2,100 pages contained in the three volumes he dispels many of the myths now purported as facts by three generations raised on war movies and syndicated television programs.

Perhaps the most telling quote of the entire series came in his middle work on the horrors of fighting uphill for 18 months in mountainous Italy in 1944 and 45.

George Biddle was an artist attached to the US Army's 3rd Infantry and travelled with Gen. Lucian Truscott from Tunisia to Italy chronicling the unit's activity for Life magazine.

Biddle was in his late 50s, with life experiences that led him to view the carnage descending on the young in the manner that only an older man can envision.

As he watched gloved soldiers tossing dead American and German bodies into open trucks during a driving rainstorm after a battle near Monte Cesima, he penned these words:

"I wish the people a home, instead of thinking of their boys in terms of football stars, would think of them in terms of miners trapped underground or suffocating to death in a tenth-story fire. I wish they would think of them as cold, wet, hungry, homesick and frightened. I wish, when they think of them, they would be a little sick to their stomachs."

Two horrible political mistakes refined and transformed our republic into the United States of myth, legend and, ultimately, the nation we are today.

But, while the old and established make the mistakes, it's the young men who do the dying.

That's a lesson the both Catton and Atkinson bring to the fore with Úlan, but a lesson people and, in particular, politicians never fully grasp.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a man of the 19th century, may have written it best: "The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, and all the sweet serenity of books."

Perhaps reading about the mistakes of the past can alter the future.

Then again, ignorance is eternal.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired public school educator.

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