Americans know little of our history

Published 5:38 pm Tuesday, February 19, 2019

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Most of us are familiar with the aphorism that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The vast majority of Americans, however, don’t remember the past, or certainly don’t know much about it.

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Based on the results of a survey conducted recently by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, you would think that ignorance of American history is almost a badge of honor for Americans.

The survey consisted of 20 questions, most of them fairly straightforward queries about specific historic facts, such as who was president during the Great Depression and World War II? A few are a bit more obscure and probably not crucial to an understanding of national history and culture.

Nevertheless, the results are sobering. Only in Vermont — one state out of 50 — did a majority of residents pass the test (12 correct answers out of 20 were required to pass). In every other state, more than 50 percent failed.

Virginians can take some pride in being one of the top five scoring states, others being Vermont, Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana. But even so, 54 percent of Virginians failed.

And want to take a guess at which states are the bottom five? They are Louisiana (with a 73 percent fail rate), Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi. And the next three from the bottom are Georgia, West Virginia and South Carolina.

The results, according to the Wilson Foundation, point to ignorance at all age levels, though younger Americans did more poorly than older ones. But the belief by older Americans that schools are failing to teach what we learned as kids simply isn’t true. A lot of American history didn’t stick with our older generations either.

Instead, the foundation concluded that it’s the type of instruction, rather than the amount, that’s the problem.

“American history education is not working, as students are asked to memorize dates, events and leaders, which the poll results show are not retained in adulthood,” said foundation President Arthur Levine. “Based on our research, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether kids study American history in school. The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history.”

The word most often used by students of all generations to describe history is “boring,” and Levine says that, unfortunately, it often is.

The foundation hopes to help combat the waning knowledge of American history by helping develop interactive teaching methods that use all the bells and whistles of the digital age.

I wish them well. I am convinced that our Republic is in trouble and that only the sober reasoning of an informed electorate can ensure its future.

Our inability to understand our past has all-too-often hindered our progress.

Even recent history is too-soon forgotten. The housing crisis brought on by an unregulated Wall Street little more than a decade ago should have prompted lasting reforms, but we’ve all but forgotten how close we came to another Great Recession, and are now working to deregulate financial institutions once again.

An enlightened nation in the mid 20th century built super highways and connectors that launched the greatest economic growth the world has ever seen. Today, we have forgotten the importance of that work and all but abandoned the idea that only collectively can we build — and maintain — the infrastructure that drives the economy.

And our refusal to acknowledge the centuries-old abysmal history of race relations, beginning with slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era, continues to baffle us. It’s as though we are just now learning we have a problem.

The Wilson Foundation has the right idea. History has to be made interesting and relevant to the generations that will soon to manage our future. We — they — must know what kind of nation we’ve been if we are to rationally decide what kind of nation we should become.