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Published: Wednesday, 5/18/2011 - Updated: 4 years ago

Today's kids can't relate to history's lessons

THEY live in the present. They can't relate to the past. But a couple busloads of fifth graders, and yours truly, took a trip back in time anyway to the Henry Ford complex in Dearborn, Mich.

Some of the exhibits at the vast Henry Ford Museum almost made me lose track of the group of 11-year-old boys I was shepherding through history.

To see the 1961 Lincoln limousine President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in on Nov. 22, 1963, stopped me cold, as did the virtual tour of the car's interior.

But as I was prattling on about the significance of the presidential vehicle, my young charges were racing off to something more exciting: a monster piece of farm machinery.

It made no difference to them that the 1975 Sperry-New Holland corn harvester was the first ever built. Or that it did everything except make coffee while harvesting, threshing, and separating kernels in the field. It was just cool to climb into the cab of the combine and sit behind the wheel.

We took a slew of pictures and moved on. The cameras started to click again when someone spotted the 1939 Douglas DC-3 suspended from the ceiling.

The kids were unimpressed that in 1975, when the aircraft was donated to the museum, it had spent more time aloft than any other plane in history. They just wanted to know how it stayed up on the roof.

By the time we got to the compact 1926 Ford Flivver, which Henry Ford apparently ordered built to fit in his office and that only his test pilot and Charles Lindbergh ever flew, my bunch was bored. But I dragged them over to one of the museum's main attractions.

For a nanosecond I held their short attention spans with an upholstered rocking chair framed by box-seat theater curtains in a glass enclosure. It was the chair Abraham Lincoln sat in at Ford's Theatre on the night he was shot .

There is an April 14, 1865, playbill from that fateful evening's performance of Our American Cousin, and other artifacts nearby, but the death chair provoked the most questions. Then we schlepped over to another exhibit.

The youngsters hopped into the restored yellow and green Montgomery city bus Rosa Parks boarded on Dec. 1, 1955. I sat where she sat and listened to her recorded version of the event without realizing my group had scattered again.

They were scampering through a segregation exhibit when I made them look at the designations for "Whites" and "Colored" attached to drinking fountains and public areas. This was their history too, warts and all.

They sprinted ahead to find the women's suffrage jail cell. Their chaperone posed for pictures behind bars as a mom held hostage. The sisterhood would understand.

The kids had little interest in a display that highlighted generational distinctions of the 20th century. But they howled at the old Zenith black-and-white television sets, portable eight-tracks, LP records, Princess dial phones, Tinker Toys, vintage clothes, and retro furniture.

The stuff brought back childhood memories for me, but like a needle scratching a vinyl record, happy thoughts screeched to a halt when I realized the items I grew up with were antiques. Was it time for lunch yet?

A 1960s-vintage neon McDonald's sign made them hungry. When the whining stopped and stomachs were full, we trooped over to the 19th-century world of the sprawling 90-acre Greenfield Village.

We toured the landscape of eclectic history by horse-drawn carriage and a Model T Ford, passing the boyhood homes of American originals with surnames such as Wright, Webster, Ford, Firestone, and Frost. We saw a courthouse where a young lawyer named Lincoln practiced law, a stunning reproduction of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park lab, and artisans who demonstrated authentic period crafts from glassblowing to weaving.

But on the bus ride home, with ubiquitous electronic games in play, overhead TVs blaring, and contraband cell phones texting, a mother lamented how removed kids are from what makes their world run, let alone how it was shaped centuries ago.

I recalled a weaver who explained how merino wool from the working Firestone farm was recycled into yarn. She stressed the need for kids to know.

She was right. Trips back in time can pique the interest of future American originals, but that curiosity must be regularly cultivated by adults who have lived history and can relate to what the past teaches the present.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com

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