History Doesn’t Repeat. It Rhymes – with Ben Stein

24 Apr History Doesn’t Repeat. It Rhymes – with Ben Stein

Today I’m starting a series where I’m focusing on some of my heroes: People who may or may not be a household name, but they certainly deserve to be. These are people that have inspired me and I can’t wait to introduce them to you.

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Today, we are talking with Ben Stein, an award-winning teacher and golf coach here in MY town… Des Moines, Iowa.

Ben has been a social studies teacher for 16 years. He now teaches at the junior high he attended as a teenager. How cool is that? He has had a huge impact on countless young people, including my two boys. And that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have him on.

Ben has an incredible talent for making history live. When he was their teacher, our boys would come home charged up because Mr. Stein had told a great story and got the class talking about it.  As a result, we’d have marathon dinner table conversation.

When you look at our history, when you dig into stories of grit, of determination, of collaboration, of healing, of heart, of sticktoitiveness… we can know more of where we came from and who we are.

Ben truly wants to help these kids to dream, to think, to do.

So let’s get to it. Mr. Stein, Ben Stein, welcome to Dream. Think. Do!

Thank you for having me.

You and I have been friends for years now, but there’s a part of me that still wants to call you Mr. Stein, in homage of you being a teacher, and a great one at that.

You are too kind. I’m teaching at the school where I grew up, so I have the problem that I still want to call some of my co-workers who were teachers I had by, “Mr., Ms or Mrs.”

I love it. We’re going to get to some specific stories from history because I think we need to know more about our history right now. Dream. Think Doers are from all around the world. We have listeners from all over Europe, all over Africa – everywhere. So I will say this is a little bit more tip of the hat to U.S. history, but I think these stories are inspiring because they speak to that human spirit.  To grit. We’re going to get to that in just a second, but we’re going to start with Ben’s story. Did you always want to be a social studies teacher? Is that what you wanted to do or is this something that you found?

You know, originally I wanted to play golf. I found out very quickly that I wasn’t good enough, so I got my degree in English and then – what do you do with a degree in English? I was going into education to become a teacher, and it was shortly after 9/11. I realized how important it is for us to know who we are. And, as my good friend Oprah tells me – you don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you are.

And as I’m learning more and more of these stories from history, it inspires me to share that with my students, to let them know who they are as Americans and what that means to prepare for the future.

That’s awesome. One of the things I appreciate is the sort of Socratic method you use in teaching. My boys would come home and mention that you’d share a story but then say, ‘Tim, what do you think of this?’ You would get them talking.  Our boys were fired up because they were engaged.

Well, you know, there’s a quote in my room which is the theme for the class. It’s by Mark Twain, and goes: “History doesn’t repeat. It rhymes.”

So I start off class with a two minute current event on anything going on and we’ll discuss it. It’s funny how we can relate that to the same things that were going on 200 years ago, only. It’s slightly different. I think that engages the kids because when you’re talking about the current events around the world today and then relay that back to the 1700s, I think that’s easier for kids to understand.

Yeah, absolutely. I’m with you. Let’s dig into it. What are three stories from history that all Americans should know but probably don’t? What were some of the stories that come to mind for you?

Well George Washington of course comes to mind. To me, there’s so much to the man. When you are talking about grit, determination, and who we are as Americans, you think of George Washington. I think about the American Revolution and how it was a war we were not supposed to win. If you think about all the things that have to happen just the way they did. If just one of those things didn’t happen, then we don’t become the United States of America.

One of the greatest stories about Washington is the battle of Trenton. It occured December 26 in the depths of winter in 1776. Things were not looking good. So it’s December and Washington realizes that at the end of the month these 17, 18 year old kids who had enlisted — their term was ending on the 31st. He realizes that at the end of the month it’s over and we will cease to be a United States of America.

We are literally within a couple of weeks of this war being over and Washington sends out scouts and he finds that 15 miles across the Delaware on the New Jersey side, there is a group of German soldiers called Hessians. The British had the money to hire German soldiers to do their fighting for them, that’s how powerful the British were at that time.

About 5:00 in the evening on Christmas Day and they crossed the Delaware and he gets his 2,500 men across. The whole idea is that they are going to attack the Hessians at precisely 6:00 in the morning. Washington wants to surprise the Hessian. They might be hung over or they may be a little slow to respond. And that’s exactly what happened. They surprised the Hessians and win a victory when it was needed most.

Interesting thing – this Hessian Colonel, Johann Rall was among the casualties of the battle. And when they go through his coat pocket that he was wearing, there is a message from one of his scouts. The message says there is a high chance of a surprise attack by the Continental army. It was sealed in the envelope and Rall never read it, and if he had read that, it makes you wonder if we’d be here right now.

Wow!

Right? And that’s just one of hundreds of stories where things have to happen the way that they do or we’re not here!

I mean, it’s amazing. Washington’s troops were grossly underfunded and under equipped. Winter weather, freezing water! Odds were against them, for sure. I’m guessing that was one of the first, if not the first, big wins for Washington to start building hope back up.

You know, for some of these kids who were going to be in the battle of Trenton, they were eating leather from their boots. They were fighting over oxtail because they had nothing. So you talk about grit and determination – that’s who we are as Americans. We don’t quit when all is lost and we have nothing left. We fight. When we get knocked down, we always get back up. And the cool thing is that’s from our foundation.

Wow. I just love these stories and it’s something I just feel like we all need to know because again, it speaks to that human spirit.

Well, give me another story. I’m sure you’ve got this long list of all these examples, but I know one of the other George Washington stories that just blew my kids away came at the end end of the war.

Yes, the Newburgh conspiracy. The last battle, Yorktown 1781. There had been negotiation with Britain for the past 2 years or so. Washington’s generals were upset because they didn’t get the back pay from the Continental Congress. And they basically want Washington to be a king. So they call this meeting in Newburgh, New York. Washington comes in and they are giving him the opportunity to be a king. But again, it’s the metamorphosis that occurs in the American revolution where Washington — and this is the greatest thing about leadership: it’s not about you, it’s about the people you lead — and all of a sudden it wasn’t about Washington. It was about the United States of America.

At the Newburgh conspiracy, his generals basically want to throw a coup d’etat. They want to overthrow the continental congress and we want Washington to be king. And he says – no.

We look at George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin as being great. They weren’t born that way. They were just born good. But there’s an evolution where they learn these things. They learn to be a better person. And as we learn from Washington and others, hopefully we learn to become a better person.

That’s great. I think we can both say knowing a little bit about history. Washington was not a perfect man, but certainly a person who changed the direction and trajectory of a country.

Exactly. But we have these cornerstones. I teach these rules to live by. You know, treat others the way you want to be treated. Be kind. My favorite is, is: do the right thing. What makes Washington great wasn’t that he did a whole lot in terms of foreign policy or domestic policy. He tried to do the right thing. It’s easy to think about some of our leaders today who are unable to do that. I keep telling my kids, you know, the hardest thing you’re ever going to have to do is to do the right thing. You know what the right thing is. Do you have the courage and the strength to do it? I think Washington was a great president because he did.

Let’s hear another story. Maybe someone else that most people don’t know but we should?

Ok. So this is one of my favorite parts of my class. The war of 1812 is kind of an asterisk in history, but it’s pretty fascinating.  I mean, 30 years later the British are basically coming back to take back the land that they lost. They’re coming in hot! We’re about to lose this one as well.

Just like the Revolutionary War, as it starts, we’re getting beaten pretty badly. The British actually storm the Capital, come in unopposed, and then they burn it down to the ground. They burned the White House down to the ground. They burn government buildings.

So sure enough, the US army, they’re on the run and they’re running north to Baltimore to a place called Ft McHenry. And there’s this massive 100 year “perfect storm” that happens, giving them just enough time to get hunkered down at Ft. McHenry.

So they put up this huge flag at Ft McHenry, to give the people of Baltimore some hope. Francis Scott Key is detained on a British warship, he’s looking at that very big American flag, and he knows that as the next morning comes, the smoke begins to dissipate. By dawn’s early light. He does see that the flag is still there and we withstood this incredible barrage, this incredible assault. Again, it goes to the heart of who we are as Americans. You know, you can try to break us, but we are still going to be there in the end.

I think that’s the story of America.

Exactly. Exactly. I love it. So as we have the chance to put our thumb print, you know, as history rhymes during our generation, where are we going to impact that? How are we going to participate?

Absolutely. I love presidential elections because the kids are really into it, they’re seeing it all around them and we had those discussions. But one of the things that I really stress in my classes, you know, it’s OK for people to disagree with you. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s about acceptance. You have to understand. Part of that is empathy. You know, if somebody feels differently about gun control or whatever the issue is, that’s ok. But seek first to understand, not to be understood. I think that we forget that we’re so dead set on the issue that we’re right and we can’t be wrong.

Absolutely. It’s a hard lesson, but seeking to understand is crucial.

Which reminds me of some history! It’s about John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a Democratic Republican and Adams was a Federalist. They did NOT get along. Adams was President following Washington. But then after Jefferson is president, these guys realized that there aren’t too many people in the world who understand what it means to be a president of the United States, and it turns out they actually had a lot in common and they actually became very good friends.

That is amazing. Thanks for that. So I always love to wrap up with offering a word of wisdom. What’s something that helps you keep going? Something that helps bring out your grit and determination?

Well, as I mentioned, I do these current events, and one of the current events that we saw was a class conducted at Yale. It’s the happiness class and it’s about what it means to be happy.

Happiness, as it turns out, is all about developing the habit. And so this class at Yale is all about getting you in the habit. So doing things like meditation, random acts of kindness. Write down five things that you’re grateful for. It’s about forming a habit. That is not easy – I’m working on it myself.

Well, Ben, keep bringing the awesome, because I know our family’s been blessed by it. I know a lot of the families are and I know that all the dream thing, doers to what, no matter where they live in the world, needed to hear some stories from a guy who’s fired up to tell him. So thanks so much for all that you do, man. 

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