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Monday, December 7, 2009

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

In yesterday's post I pointed to a number of studies that reveal both a general and profound national illiteracy on the subject of American history. Today I wanted to bring up one more study (which focuses specifically on the history of the American Revolution) and why it is so dangerous for a society to forget its heritage.

A recent survey/study conducted by the American Revolution Center sought out to determine just how much the average American really knows about the founding of this nation. As part of their survey they asked several random American citizens if maintaining a working knowledge of the American Revolution was important or not. 90% of Americans responded by stating that it was "extremely important" for citizens today to understand the history of the Revolution if they hoped to be able to participate effectively in the democratic process. In addition, these same subjects volunteered to take a "general test" on the American Revolution. 89% stated that they were "extremely confident" they would be able to pass with a B or better.

So just how many people passed the test you ask? Only 17%!!!

That's right, roughly 83% of American citizens failed this test on the BASIC history of the American Revolution. In fact, the average score was a dismal 44% (click here to see the actual results and summary of this survey/test, and click here to see the actual test questions and take it for yourself).

When hearing of these atrocious scores Josiah Bunting, chairman of the National Civic Literacy Board, aptly stated the following:
The survey provides stark evidence that Americans of the 21st century are increasingly -- sadly, deplorably -- ignorant of their legacy, their history and their political and constitutional birthright of the 18th century.
Susan Jacoby, author of the book, The Age of American Unreason echoes Mr. Buntings words when she writes:
During the past four decades, America's endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic. This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation's heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.
With such deplorable scores one can only wonder why more emphasis is NOT placed on educating Americans about their noble past. After all, European nations have, in the past two decades, increased the emphasis their schools place on history at almost all levels and the results have been extremely positive. Overall, European nations, when compared with their American counterparts, have triple the historical literacy -- and their history is a helluva lot older than ours so there's more to learn!

As I stated in my earlier post on this topic, I find is strange and even downright hypocritical for Americans to espouse such passionate political beliefs and allegiances while being so willfully ignorant of their past. Of course I am not suggesting that all Americans are to become professional historians, but is it too much to ask that they be capable of passing a test on the BASIC history of this nation? Doesn't it seem to make sense that before one takes up a political cause based on constitutional principles that he/she first possess an understanding of the Constitution itself? I guess it's sort of like the professing Christian who, despite any knowledge of the actual doctrine of his/her creed, expresses an everlasting allegiance to a faith that he/she knows nothing about.

Now, perhaps you think that I am just a biased blogger. After all, I did major in history. Would not a biology major or a math major express these same sentiments with regards to their field of study? Perhaps. But remember this: it is impossible for anyone to truly understand the political nature, governmental construct, and the rich heritage of this nation without first having a general grasp of its history.

But don't believe me. Instead give ear to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the 3rd president of this fine republic (assuming you even know who that is):
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
~Thomas Jefferson

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