Our Unfinished Work
President Lincoln's words at Gettysburg are a reminder that Americans must learn to talk to each other about issues such as the Confederacy, and schools are the perfect setting for those conversations
"It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work….”
What is the unfinished work? Was Lincoln talking to us in Gettysburg on that November afternoon in 1863? Is he still talking to us in his statement of nearly 154 years ago, a week after a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators?
I think he is.
Lincoln’s words are a challenge, underscoring the belief that being an American means having a dedication to all people as part of the community. An acceptance of the aspiration of equity and a commitment to make it a reality. Acknowledgement that we are working to “form a more perfect union.” That we do not seek to destroy what is different.
Schools and communities now have an opportunity to teach and demonstrate what it means to be working towards that unfinished business. It is a time to both talk and listen as we all examine what we believe is important and why.
One of our current conflicts is how to view the Confederacy, its leaders and its many legacies. While this historical discussion might be interesting, how that discussion is being applied is creating divisions today. It is these divisions that we need to understand so we might continue to dedicate ourselves to our unfinished work. They are impacting debates on health care, education, foreign policy, climate change and other complex and difficult issues. Yet, as we are learning, not talking about them seems to only be exacerbating these problems.
Schools may be one of the few places where we can sit together and learn how to talk about these issues. This process can start with schools serving as places where community leaders convene meetings. Eventually, it may evolve into a discussion that occurs in classrooms, and if we keep at it, we may learn how to handle these differences so that conflict doesn’t become violence.
The “unfinished work” necessitates each one of us learning what we need to do to solve the old and new challenges of today, not simply mask them with the conflicts of the past.
Richard M. Long is the executive director of the Learning First Alliance.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.
Photo courtesy of Destination Gettysburg.