The Associated Press recently reported that Indiana’s 2016 bicentennial celebration will include a push for “big ideas” that could drive change in our state over the next half century. Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton came up with the idea for this “2016 Visioning Project.”
Having heard this news, the Hoosier cynic in me said that what Indiana needs to do over the next half century is catch up with things the rest of the world accomplished 50 years ago—things like local government reform, competitive-with-the-nation wages that can support families, antidiscrimination laws that provide equal protection for all of our citizens, and protection of our state’s reputation from standup comedians and seven-figure PR firms.
But despite my skepticism, I’m a sucker for times gone by and a fan of tapping milestones not only to look back, but also to apply the lessons of history—good, bad and ugly—to inform and enhance the future.
The danger in planning history celebrations, such as the one Indiana is about to launch in 2016, is that we wax overly nostalgic. Wanting to keep things positive (especially in gubernatorial election years), we don rose-colored lenses. We sugarcoat. We whitewash. We trot out Mom, Chevrolet and apple pie.
Sure, we can find things to emulate from the “good ol’ days.”
But as U.S. founding father Patrick Henry said in 1775, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.”
Well, judging by the past, Indiana has certainly done some good things in its first 200 years. But we’ve also made some mistakes. And if we don’t learn about them—and from them—we’re doomed (as the saying goes) to repeat them.
There’s a movement afoot in parts of this nation to sanitize the history lessons we teach our children. In Jefferson County, Colorado, for example, elected officials have attempted to censor Advanced Placement history curriculum and tests for high school students. They say the lessons paint a too-dark picture of our nation’s heritage. They say the curriculum is too light on “American exceptionalism.”
Well, I say if we’re going to get the most-valuable “big ideas” from Indiana’s first 200 years of history, we need to know about, understand and learn from our mistakes—as well as our successes. And that’s a bicentennial lesson I learned in an Indiana public high school.
In 1976, as our nation was celebrating its 200th anniversary, I wrote a speech for interscholastic competition. Called “Happy Birthday, America,” it started out rah-rah. Then it turned dark: a nation that massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, assassinated four of its presidents, polluted its natural resources.
In the end, I acknowledged the bleak imagery, but pointed out, as I have here, that learning from our past—all of it—can make us so much stronger 50, 100 or 200 years down the road.
In conservative Indiana, four decades ago, my speech won the state championship. Lions, Kiwanians, Rotarians, chambers of commerce and others asked that I deliver it for them, so that their members might learn the lesson, too.
Forty years later, here’s hoping Indiana’s bicentennial tells the truth and the whole truth—and that the resulting “big ideas” not only catch us up, but also propel us ahead.•
Bruce Hetrick is professor of practice for the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts/Department of Journalism and Public Relations at IUPUI and president of Powerful Appeals Inc. Send comments on this column to [email protected].