Twenty Dollars: Only by Looking Back Can We Look Ahead

It was the last day of school, May, 1984.   Mr. Mehlhaff, who at that time was my administrator, gave me $20 at the end of school.  He knew that my family and I were on our way south and east to visit both sets of parents.  I remember as if it were yesterday, his exact words: “Here is $20 to help you with gas . . . on the trip back.”

You see, I had just finished my initial year of teaching at Shiloh Christian School in Bismarck, ND.  It was my first year of vocational teaching anywhere, much less as a high school teacher.  To that point, I had never had an education course.  I was no where near ready to understand theories of learning or philosophies of education.  And it had been a rough year.  I didn’t like teaching.  I didn’t like my students.  I thought that young people would automatically eat up Scriptural lessons.  After all, this was a Christian school with Christian teenagers.  I soon learned that the glories of graduate school where everyone was there because they wanted to learn was not necessarily the case with my students.  It was on my mind to consider doing something else after such a tough start.  Mr. Mehlhaff knew it.  That $20 brought me back to North Dakota.  It brought me back to Christian school education.  $20 taught me that only looking back do we look ahead.

I tell audiences all the time that history is the most important subject in any school.  One antidote to forgetting the past in the Old Testament is activity.  Feasts, stones monuments, tassels on the hems of garments, table tops, and repositories for Scripture wrapped around one’s forehead or forearm were all active reminders of past events.  We “make” history live again by singing, pledging, bowing, eating, and drinking with gratefulness to God for who He is and what He has done.  We even designate one day a week to celebrate the event that makes our celebration today possible: Jesus’ resurrection.  We look back so that we might look ahead.

An adult student at Crossroads, whose 9—5 vocation is an architect, recently told me the story of historical monuments that had to be moved.  Just two weeks ago a rebuilt bridge had a ribbon cutting ceremony in Ohio.  So as not to be lost, the hundred year old markers remembering fallen American soldiers were carefully kept and re-embedded into the new bridgework by Kevin’s architectural firm.  The event drew congressmen, businessmen, and local townspeople all hailing the bridge as a step forward, enhancing future generations of the community.  Speech after speech was made.  Local news cameras rolled, recording the event.  Sadly, it was not until everyone was packing up to leave that someone ran to the podium to say, “Oh!  And by the way, the rebuilt bridge is also to honor these men from history.”  My student remarked, “The bridge, originally built with historical honor, had become simply an ‘Oh, by the way’ moment today.”  What some folks forgot is that it is only by looking back that we can look ahead.

But there are twin problems in the study of history.  First, it is hard to assess your own time because you are too close to it.  Second, it is hard to assess someone else’s time because you are too far from it.

Number 1, being too close: I’ll never forget my visceral reaction to a so-called “study” of present day historians in 2008.  Concerning themselves with the question, “Where does George W. Bush rank as a president?”  It was a foregone conclusion: liberal scholars hands down ranked our 43rd president as one of the worst.  It was early morning when I read the report from, not surprisingly, The New York Times. I AM surprised I didn’t wake up the neighborhood with my outburst: “You are historians!  Why don’t you go study history!  You can’t properly judge the present if your focus of study is the past!”  Looking back is necessary to looking forward.

Number 2, being too far away: Barbara Tuchman, the brilliant American historian, wrote, “To understand the choices open to people of another time, one must limit oneself to what they knew; see the past in its own clothes, as it were, not in ours.”[1] It is unfair, then, to impose our views on the founders of America, for instance, with 250 years of history under our belts.  This is the reason I hate listening to sports talk radio on Monday after NFL games played Sunday.  Hearing fans scream about a quarterback’s interception thrown which lost the game makes me unnerved.  I wonder what that Monday morning quarterback would do if some 350 pound defensive end was about to send them into next week.  Looking forward means we have to be careful about how we look back.

I once had a student who hated history.  Confronting me with his views he bellowed, “What has history ever done for me?!”  Though I was more forceful, and shall we say “pointed,” with him than I will share here with you today, my point was clear enough: a man and woman created your entry into the world, a point of history.  Forgetting God and His human agents is a slap in the face to Heaven and those on earth who have given us the life we now take for granted.  The teaching of history is a salute to the past and a stabilizing view toward the future.

I’ll never forget Bob, who told his story in our school chapel of flying a torpedo bomber during the battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.  All of us who heard that talk were speechless.  Bob was shot down, evaded capture behind enemy lines, was rescued at night by submarine, and was preparing to return to fight again when the news came that the war had been won.  I had the privilege recently of sitting in the home of Ralph Simms, the last living member of his B-17 WWII bomber crew.  When my mom lived in Syracuse I saw him almost every time I came home.  Whenever I’m in airports I stop men and women in uniform, shake their hand, and thank them for their service or stick my head in the USO with a word of appreciation.  Like all knowledge, history should humble us.  Whenever I do research in libraries or wander through bookstores or read another written word I am reminded of one indelible truth: how much I don’t know.  We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

Looking back, history gives us heroes.  I remember the day I heard that my hero, Johnny Unitas, died.  I watched with tears in my eyes that Sunday following his funeral when I saw his black high tops in the old Indianapolis Dome.  You see Unitas liked Peyton Manning, the Colts’ present day QB.  Johnny gave Peyton a number of personal mementoes, including those old ugly football shoes.  The week that Johnny Unitas died, Peyton Manning placed Johnny’s old black high top football shoes in a chalk-line circle just outside the endzone during a home game.  History was remembered.  Those who have gone before, matter.  Just as I treasure memories of old number 19, I believe heroes must never be forgotten.  Unitas made me believe I could do anything when I was nine years old.  Looking back, I looked ahead.

Tony Dungy, former head football coach of our illustrious Indianapolis Colts, begins his biography by recounting how he had been unceremoniously “dumped” by his former bosses from Tampa Bay.  Looking back on that hard time in his life he acknowledges the great loss it would have been not to coach the Colts.  History gives us the gift of distance.  It is difficult and indeed wrong to form immediate conclusions to recent events in our lives.  Be careful how we look back on those who came before us.

You will remember the bad with the good about people in your lives.  Let me suggest that as young historians you look first to the core of a person’s character, letting go of personal missteps as a marker of that person’s life.  Your father could be quiet.  Your mom might be demanding.  Your teacher may seem uncompromising.  Your administrator may only be seen as a disciplinarian.  All history is an interpretive judgment.  We think of events as either good or bad.  May distance from the present allow us to look back with grace on those who have made it possible for us to look ahead.

Yet, our culture seems to dismiss adult importance altogether.  G.K. Chesterton in his classic Orthodoxy wrote, “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  Tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”  When Ronald Reagan was governor of California there was great upheaval on college campuses.  The activists would often shout their barbs and insults at Reagan in public.  At one campus meeting, a student told Reagan that it was impossible for people of Reagan’s generation to understand young people.  “You grew up in a different world,” he said.  “Today we have television, jet planes, space travel, nuclear energy, and computers.”  Without missing a beat Reagan replied, “You’re right.  It’s true that we didn’t have those things when we were young.  We invented them.”

When you are in the presence of your elders, ask for and listen to their stories.  Wisdom often accompanies age.  [I would offer a caveat here: I know some people my age who still act like teenagers.  So I say ‘wisdom often accompanies age.’]  The great sage of the 20th century Russell Kirk said, “The great literature of yesteryear is the communication of the dead to the living; it is the bequest of vanished generations to this generation.  Without that inheritance, you and I would be straying in a dark wood, in peril of mires and pitfalls.”  A couple of years ago one of my former high school students, who earned his PhD at 29, wrote to ask me if I could recommend biographies for him to read.  What was John saying with his request?  Those who have gone before may put us ahead.

Which reminds me to say: Get rid of the phrase “I just can’t wait to be done with ______”  There will come a day when you will begin to remember the past, wish to return, and sometimes regret lost opportunities to think, be, or do something.  This is what the Old Testament means when it says in Ecclesiastes 9 “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, because the day will come when you will be dead.”  Remembering that we will all be under the ground should make us strive to do all we should do while we’re above ground.

Mark Twain was a bit unkind to teenagers in his day.  He believed that when a young person reached the age of thirteen they should be put into a pickle barrel and fed through the knot hole.  He didn’t stop there.  When each reached the age of sixteen, the parent should close the knot hole.  My watchword throughout all my years of teaching is contrary to Twain.  My anonymous motto reads, “It is better to build children than to repair adults.”  So be leaders.  My brother-in-law, Pastor Larry Renoe, reminded me recently that leaders make history; leadership shapes reality.  Quoting Paul Johnson’s great work A History of the American People, those who signed the Declaration were the “most remarkable group of men in history. Great events in history are determined by all kinds of factors, but the most important one is always the quality of the people in charge; and never was this principle more convincingly demonstrated than in the struggle for American independence.”  Leadership is crucial to the health and the effectiveness of any movement: looking back and looking ahead.

I am a conservative in almost every way that label can be attached.  My leanings, however, are not fostered by bombastic radio personalities or like-to-hear-themselves-talk television entertainers.  My conservatism arises out of the origin of the word: a need to preserve the past.  I believe in what T.S. Eliot called “permanent things.”  While I may use cell phones and computers, they are simply tools.  More important to me are ideas, supernatural in origin, which remind me to look up, and back.

So be wary of the huckster, the spirit of our age, whose siren’s song is, “You must have this!”  The next new thing will soon be “that old thing.”  The dustbowl of history is full of momentary charm whose shine dulls quickly with time.  Instead of wanting something new, we should respect the past.

Ryne Sandberg, Chicago Cub baseball great in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, told this story, “The fourth major league game I ever saw in person, I was in uniform. Yes, I was in awe. I was in awe every time I walked on to the field. That’s respect. I was taught you never, ever disrespect your opponent or your team mates or your organization or your manager and never, ever your uniform. Make a great play, act like you’ve done it before, get a big hit, look for the third base coach and get ready to run the bases, hit a home run, put your head down, drop the bat, run around the bases, because the name on the front [of the jersey] is a lot more important than the name on the back. That’s respect.[2]

The great Roman statesman Cicero said, “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child.”  A 2008 study on the need for teaching history in American schools, E Pluribus Unum notes that “the preservation of American memory is not solely the task of our schools and colleges. We all have an obligation to remember what we owe to those who have gone before us. Schools used to be named after American heroes such as Nathan Hale and Clara Barton instead of just East Metropolis Junior High. That practice should be restored.”  So, honor your place.  Remember the greatness of your hometown, the great state of South Dakota, and the wonder of this great country, the United States of America.  To honor your place is to respect history and your ancestors. 

And now today, you bear the responsibility of respect.  Forever your name will be on the roll of this institution.  Do nothing to defame that memory or this place.  When you exit this auditorium today your first breathe should utter a prayer of gratitude to He who made you.  Your second breathe should be to honor your parents for making your life possible.  Every one of you, if you have not done so already, should thank your teachers.  Teachers ARE the school.  Without your instructors you would be lost in a sea of information without a compass to give ideas direction, without a sail to catch the wind of knowledge, without a lighthouse to keep your ship from being crushed on the shoals of error, and without navigation instruments which honor Heaven’s true North Star.

$20 brought me back to teaching in the 1984-85 school year.  Since then, I have pondered this idea: looking back allows me to look ahead.  I hope the same for you.  I pray that you would always honor those who have gone before you, who have given you what you have now.  I would ask that you live by the transcendent truths of Scripture which alone give us ideas that provide the foundations for our great institutions.  I beseech you live humbly, wedding new ideas with ancient wisdom which comes from our Eternal Father.  I beg you to hold leadership in your open hand, extending it to others; for if your hand becomes a fist leadership is nothing more than unbridled power.  I caution you to recall that our histories are yet to be written—do not believe we always have the right answer, right now.  I advise you, bring to mind that we should be careful judging yesterday by what we know today.  And the next time you see a $20 bill, remember the past makes the future possible.

May The Ancient of Days, The Everlasting God, The Alpha and Omega, The Beginning and the End, secure our futures because of what He has done in the past: by the plan of The Father, by the incarnation of The Son, and the protection of The Spirit for all our days.  Amen.

Graduation Address for Sunshine Bible Academy, Miller, SD, 23 May 2010.  Dr. Mark Eckel, President, The Comenius Institute, Indianapolis.


[1] Barbara Tuchman, “Problems in Writing the Biography of General Stilwell,” in Practicing History, 75.

[2] http://www.cubsnet.com/node/526

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2 comments

  1. Mark-I read this through. Made me sit back & think about my life, & think about the past. I have gathered so much information & knowledge through my life, the past. Going ahead means going back. Thank You! I Love You Mark Eckel, Aunt Jeannie.

  2. I totally agree. That’s why my home is filled with over 9,000 books, most of them history and biography. And we read them, discuss them, treasure them. These books are the ones the libraries are discarding. Why? because these books speak the truth about history, not some revisionist philosophy.

    Thanks for writing. I enjoyed this article. Please tell your wonderful wife “Hi” for me.

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