Our Reverence for Dedication


While tracked out from my year-round middle school, I work part-time for an educational field trip company. Although I get to visit places like Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks, most often I spend my breaks with groups in our nation’s capital: Washington, DC.

Because I have seen many of the attractions and locations so many times that I’ve lost count, I find myself drawn in to observing the people who surround me at each place. People-watching can be a fun hobby in any situation, but I’ve noticed a common trait among visitors to one site that is most fascinating.

Many people from all over the country include Arlington National Cemetery as part of their plans, specifically to observe the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is a solemn ritual that brings crowds throughout the day. If you are not familiar with it, the Tomb recognizes the sacrifice of all American soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors who lost their lives without being identified. The Tomb is guarded twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year by a lone member of the US Army’s Third Infantry Regiment. This solitary guard famously paces 21 steps back and forth across a rubber mat in a robotic dance of vigilance. A small number of people are almost always there watching this ritual.

But once an hour, or more often at certain times of the year, the silent process is interrupted by a perfectly orchestrated procedure in which the ranking officer directs the on-duty guard to handoff his duties to the next one. It is a simple, yet captivating, process.

And, that is what I find so curious. Why are we are drawn so strongly to witness this ritual? What is it about another person’s extreme level of dedication and commitment that interests us?

I have a theory. I think that it’s a combination of admiration for those who commit to something that we choose not and a simultaneous desire to replicate it that drive us to watch. We want to render a similar level of persistence and sacrifice, but many adults realize that we can not. As a result, we are mesmerized by the simple spectacle of watching others do what we are unable or unwilling to do.

What application do think that this phenomenon has for education? Can we engage our students with impressive feats of dedication? Maybe not. Can we pull them in with opportunities to serve their community and become “tomb guards” in other ways? I think so.

The challenge is not to motivate our students to provide dedicated service to their community. The challenge is to find ways to pass along the orders and give them a shift at the tomb.

What do you think will be the twenty-one paces for your students?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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