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Sunday, December 6, 2009

The United States of Amnesia: America's Historical Ignorance, Part I

Does America face a crisis of conscience? Do we today know less about our roots than generations past? Is our national heritage eroding away below our feet not because of some "liberal conspiracy" but due to pure apathy?

I believe so.

A recent survey conducted by the Nation's Report Card 2001: U.S. History indicated that more than half of American high school seniors lack a "basic" understanding of American history ("basic" meaning questions like "What was the Holocaust," and, "Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?"). To make matters worse, a 2003 Roper Survey of Americans found that only 38% of Adults and 53% of college students had a basic understanding of the history of the Holocaust. Another 68% of Americans were unable to name at least three signers of the Constitution, and only 32% of adult Americans possessed a "basic understanding" of American history in general. In addition, one out of five students thought Watergate occurred before 1900 and only one-third could place the Civil War within the correct half-century. (click here for a link to these sources).

Historian David McCullough, who in recent years has become the most outspoken proponent for the advancement of historical education, has stated on numerous occasions that we are facing the prospect of national amnesia. “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.” McCullough also adds that we cannot single out our youth exclusively, but that we should take note of the historical ignorance of the adult population as well. Since the overwhelming majority of Americans obtain their historical knowledge from Hollywood, The History Channel, and other forms of pop culture, McCullough suggests that we are facing a crisis of national identity in virtually every generation of today's society.

Skeptics within the education community insist that the study of history carries less importance in the modern world than do topics such as math, science and computers. In fact the Department of Education for the State of California has determined that the study of American history should emphasize more "relevant" issues. As a result, California is currently phasing out its American Revolution and Civil War curriculums, claiming that they are of less importance to the "modern" student. In fact, the overwhelming majority of high school students nationwide are required to take only 2 semesters of history in order to graduate, while the requirements for math and science are usually double. Since history is included in the larger genre of Social Studies, less emphasis is placed on its importance. At the college level, history classes and professors are but a small part of what most universities call, The Department of Humanities. As a result, most college student are able to breeze through their collegiate careers without ever being required to take a single course of history.

I find it both strange and hypocritical that the study of history has become a mere subcategory in the larger arenas of Social Studies and Humanities. After all, Math, Science, English, etc. are still esteemed as unique and separate fields of study. So why not history? Historian George Lipsitz sums up this historical crisis best when he writes:

The crisis in historical thinking is certainly real. The dislocations of the past two centuries, the propaganda apparatuses of totalitarian powers, disillusionment with the paradigms of the Enlightenment, and popular culture itself have all served to make the search for a precious and communicable past one of the most pressing problems of our time.
I for one find it amazing that Americans are so quick to profess their love, admiration and patriotism for this nation, yet remain ignorant of its history and development. In many ways, this phenomenon is similar to the professing Christian that knows little or nothing about his/her religion's doctrine. How can one profess loyalty or patriotism to a nation or cause if he/she knows nothing of its history? As Cicero stated so many years ago, "History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity...one cannot become a true citizen without first gaining an understanding of history."

In a series of seminars, historian David McCullough has stressed the "historical crisis" that this nation currently faces. His words are far better than mine, so I will conclude by attaching a few of McCullough's video clips. I hope you will enjoy.


Part 2:

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