The State of History in 2012

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Editor's note: In advance of President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday, RCP is rolling out daily "state of" reports to better frame the issues facing the nation. Today: The state of American history.

Over the Christmas holiday I took my family to Pearl Harbor, shortly after the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack that plunged the United States into World War II. I figured that my daughter, now 6 and in first grade, should be old enough to get an up-close and personal experience with this key chapter in world history.

But I was soon consumed by a horrifying event.

While waiting for the boat to take us across the channel to the USS Arizona Memorial, I overheard a group of college students discussing history. Unable to help myself, I lingered to eavesdrop. And this is the gist of what I heard:

“The World War II [sic] started with a bunch of countries on one side and a bunch of countries on the other side,” a young man began, his companions listening with rapt attention as if it were a lecture, “and we didn’t know which side we wanted to be on and we had a hard time picking sides. But when the Japanese attacked us, that made it easy to go against their side.”

I didn’t know whether I should be enraged at or take pity on the young man’s ignorance. But what was most troubling was that he was the one dispensing “knowledge”! The others -- judging by the fact that no one disputed or challenged his account -- knew less than he did, even after apparently 12 years of compulsory education. 

But suddenly I remembered that President Obama, born and raised in Hawaii, once mentioned that a single bomb had been dropped on Pearl Harbor (in the fashion of Hiroshima) ... then it all made sense.

We’re now a country led by a man who thought JFK talked Khrushchev out of the Cuban missile crisis (he didn’t); claimed that our country built the “Intercontinental Railroad” (must be from New York to Paris); and bragged that his uncle liberated Auschwitz (was he in the Soviet Red Army?).

And I’m not picking on just Obama. His political detractors are every bit as ignorant on history: Ask them about the American Revolution, and you’d find that Michele Bachmann thought the battles at Lexington and Concord were in New Hampshire; Rick Perry believed the war was fought in the 16th century; and Sarah Palin claimed it all began when Paul Revere warned the British.

It’s symptomatic of our times. The people who aspire to hold the highest office of our land actually know very little about the history of this nation, let alone the rest of the world. 

If anything, this is a terrible indictment of our education system, from elementary schools to the institutions of higher learning, including even the most elite universities (after all, Obama attended Columbia and Harvard). It’s possible now to have 16-to-20 years’ worth of education and not come away with even a cursory grasp of history that actually matters.

But if you’re in California, where I live, your kids will get a healthy dose of history about Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and soon, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans, as mandated by state law. By the time they’re ready for college, they’ll know far more about Cesar Chavez, Huey Newton and Harvey Milk than George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

While there’s nothing wrong with learning a particular subset of history, doing so should not come before or at the expense of the core fundamentals, which are now badly neglected or perverted by political correctness. You shouldn’t try to learn about climate change if you don’t know what makes it rain. 

A Marist College survey last year revealed just how clueless Americans are about history. Barely half of the respondents knew that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776 (Rick Perry sure wasn’t among them), and over a quarter thought the colonies revolted against a country other than Britain (some believed it was China). The percentage of correct answers was proportional to the respondents’ age -- which certainly is no surprise.

As our generations get more ignorant about history, it prompts the question: Does history still matter?

I hesitate to bring up George Santayana’s famous “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” warning, because “remember” implied that it was learned at one time and later forgotten. In these times, it’s rather more like “those who are ignorant of the past are destined to screw up because they think they’re doing something new.”

If you never learned a lick about the Habsburgs and the Thirty Years’ War and the Anschluss, then it would make sense to think folks in Austria speak “Austrian.” If you knew Churchill only as a caricature colonial master oppressor, of course it’d be easy to pack up his bust and send it back to the Queen. And if you believed Kennedy talked Khrushchev out of putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, then why wouldn’t you want to sit down and chat with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Sadly, things won’t be improving much even in an age of hyper-connectivity, where everything is at our fingertips. Teenagers are spending far more time Googling Lady Gaga than Lady Thatcher. Don’t look to the big screen for help, either. The recent biopics on the Iron Lady and the Tuskegee Airmen (“Red Tails”) are following the fine Hollywood tradition of “JFK” and “Pearl Harbor” -- at best, distortions and at worst, garbage. 

So when it comes to the future of history ... you’re on your own. But thanks to that hyper-connectivity, there are ever more historical accounts and documents available to you, painstakingly written and prepared by lots of knowledgeable and dedicated people. The challenge, of course, is to sift through all that information.

That’s where we come in with our humble pitch: We launched RealClearHistory in September 2011 with the mission of delivering daily authoritative and informative history commentary and analysis. There are also, of course, a number of established great sites, including the University of Houston’s Digital History, George Mason’s History News Network and The History Channel, just to name a few.

Of the many reasons why it’s important to develop a well-rounded understanding of history, we’ll mention just one in closing: To honor the sacrifices made in the past. In the case of Pearl Harbor, it’s so the sailors and Marines who gave their lives on Dec. 7, 1941, didn’t die in vain.

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