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A stunning ignorance of America’s past

We’ll lose our nation if we don’t do a better job of teaching history and civics

Author David McCullough speaks during at the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on April 19, 2017. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

A stunning ignorance of America’s past
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Over the past two years, we have seen increased concern as parents discover what their children are learning, and not learning, in our nation’s public schools.

Perhaps the most concerning area has been in the area of history and civics, subjects that have either been woefully ignored in the past, or if taught, have been done so in a manner that is contrary to the views of most Americans.

It is those concerns about historical ignorance and historical disinformation that the esteemed late historian David McCullough blamed for his insomnia. He was concerned about what was happening in our country because of the lack of accurate teaching of American history.

The leaders of a country reflect the populace they represent. Survey after survey demonstrates how woefully uninformed American citizens are about our nation’s history and freedoms. I believe this ignorance is a critical reason we find ourselves in our current cultural and political morass.

A 2009 survey of Oklahoma high school students (who would now be in their mid-30s and casting votes and perhaps even running for and holding political office) found that only one in four could name George Washington as the first president of the United States. Only 10 percent knew there were nine justices on the Supreme Court, and only 29 percent were aware that the president headed the executive branch of the government. Only 3 percent of students were able to answer six out of the ten questions—the passing score for the U.S. citizenship test.

Nearly ten years later, things had not improved. A 2018 survey done by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation investigated the civic and historical knowledge of people in all 50 states and found only 53 percent were able to earn a passing grade in U.S. history. Eighty-five percent could not identify the year the U.S. Constitution was written. Even more alarmingly, one in four did not know freedom of speech was guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. On the last item, we are seeing that ignorance played out daily in our current “cancel” culture.

When there is no historical context to draw on, no shared history, and no understanding of how government works, this lack of context becomes seed to sow division and discord in hearts and minds.

But the ignorance is not confined to civics. The same 2018 study found that 72 percent of those surveyed did not know which states comprised the original thirteen colonies while 37 percent believed Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb. Twelve percent thought Dwight Eisenhower led the military in the American Civil War—30 years before he was born!

The result of this collective ignorance is that we have no shared historical language, which makes it impossible to have meaningful discussions about difficult topics. When there is no historical context to draw on, no shared history, and no understanding of how government works, this lack of context becomes seed to sow division and discord in hearts and minds. When people are not equipped to refute an argument and lack critical thinking skills to see beyond the rhetoric, they tend to accept practically anything, regardless of how outrageous, at face value.

When you add social media to the mix, the result is a toxic brew where personal opinions are presented as facts and misinformation is spread to an ignorant populace, dividing our nation into various tribes all pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. There is no room for civilized disagreement and men like the late David McCullough reach for the Unisom.

President Dwight Eisenhower, who actually led the Allied Forces in World War II, said in his prophetic 1953 inaugural address, “A people that values its privileges above its principles, soon loses both.” Eisenhower could have been describing modern-day America. We have forgotten our principles, while exalting our privileges, but without principles to serve as a foundation, we will eventually lose our privileges.

That is what we are seeing being played out in our culture. If we are to live civilly with each other, and if we are truly to be the United States, instead of the divided states, we must teach future generations our true history and heritage as well as provide them with the education they need to be capable, responsible citizens.

If we do this, it will help end the contentious school board meetings, the screaming protestors in the streets, and bring us back together again as a nation—with liberty and justice for all. It will be a long battle—as there is much that needs to be taught or re-taught, but we must remain confident it can be done.

Tim Goeglein

Tim Goeglein is the vice president for external and government relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, D.C., and the author of Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story.

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