Politics & Policy

A Bad Case of National Amnesia

The teaching of history in this country is woeful.

The Declaration of Independence is a poor excuse for an obscure historical document. It’s not Magna Carta or the Peace of Augsburg. Its name is so straightforwardly functional, it almost makes you wonder why the founders weren’t more imaginative.

Yet only 35 percent of American fourth-graders know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, according to the 2010 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The findings of the test — administered to representative samples of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders — are another dreary recitation of the historical ignorance of America’s students.

#ad#Only 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of twelfth-graders were proficient in history. More than half of twelfth-graders were categorized as “below basic.” Only 22 percent of twelfth-graders knew that North Korea was allied with China during the Korean War. Education expert Diane Ravitch notes with dismay that 40 percent of these students were already eligible to vote when they took the test, and all of them will be eligible within a year.

They are the symptoms of a country engaged in a long process of erasing its memory. For decades, we have been congratulating ourselves for a broadmindedness that is really a self-destructive national amnesia.

It’s no accident that the teaching of American history became ascendant during the surge of national self-confidence in the wake of the Civil War. The late sociologist Samuel Huntington reported in his book Who Are We? that just six states required the teaching of history prior to the Civil War. By the turn of the century, 23 did.

Back then, we infused the endeavor with an unabashed love for America. The historian Merle Curti writes that the schools “emphasized the importance of presenting vividly and attractively to children the glorious deeds of American heroes, the sacrifices and bravery of our soldiers and sailors in wartime, the personalities of the presidents, who might properly be regarded as symbols of the nation in the manner in which royal personages of Europe were regarded.”

A study of 400 textbooks published between 1915 and 1930 found that almost all of them were robustly nationalistic, or as one scholar commented: “The American is taught to respect and to venerate his forebears and the institutions which they designed and developed.”

How appropriate. How passé. Today, we’re lucky if students can pick their forebears out of a lineup.

The content of education began to change in the middle of the 20th century, and eventually tipped into embarrassment and self-abasement. Huntington cites a study of 22 grade-school readers published in the 1970s and 1980s. Out of 670 stories and articles in the books, only five were patriotic. All of the stories dated from prior to 1780. Four of them focused on a girl. Three of them involved the same girl, Sybil Ludington, the female Paul Revere.

As this transpired down below in the elementary schools, the professional historians worked to kill American history from above. They suffocated it first in data-driven “social history” and then in multiculturalism, until it seemed fit only for obsessives about race or gender.

This pincer movement has degraded our collective store of self-knowledge. Ravitch points out that students score better on math, reading, science, civics, writing, and geography than on history. It is practically going the way of home ec.

The neglect of history leaves on the cutting-room floor all the entertaining, instructive, and inspiring material involved in the world’s most daring and (ultimately) successful experiment in self-government. Worse, it robs us of one of the most important constituent parts of our national identity.

Historian David Lowenthal says of heritage: “By means of it we tell ourselves who we are, where we came from, and to what we belong.” Increasingly, we don’t know and don’t want to know. “Never forget” is an appropriate admonition about victims of atrocities. “Never remember” is a strange and ominous admonition for a nation somebody or other once called “the last best hope of earth.”

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

Most Popular

PC Culture

Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness

On January 29, tabloid news site TMZ broke the shocking story that Jussie Smollett, a gay black entertainer and progressive activist, had been viciously attacked in Chicago. Two racist white men had fractured his rib, poured bleach on him, and tied a noose around his neck. As they were leaving, they shouted ... Read More

Ilhan Omar’s Big Lie

In a viral exchange at a congressional hearing last week, the new congresswoman from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, who is quickly establishing herself as the most reprehensible member of the House Democratic freshman class despite stiff competition, launched into Elliott Abrams. She accused the former Reagan official ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Strange Paradoxes of Our Age

Modern prophets often say one thing and do another. Worse, they often advocate in the abstract as a way of justifying their doing the opposite in the concrete. The result is that contemporary culture abounds with the inexplicable — mostly because modern progressivism makes all sorts of race, class, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Fake Newspeople

This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a ... Read More

White Progressives Are Polarizing America

To understand how far left (and how quickly) the Democratic party has moved, let’s cycle back a very short 20 years. If 1998 Bill Clinton ran in the Democratic primary today, he’d be instantaneously labeled a far-right bigot. His support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, ... Read More

One Last Grift for Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders, the antique Brooklyn socialist who represents Vermont in the Senate, is not quite ready to retire to his lakeside dacha and so once again is running for the presidential nomination of a party to which he does not belong with an agenda about which he cannot be quite entirely ... Read More
PC Culture

Merciless Sympathy

Jussie Smollett’s phony hate-crime story could have been taken apart in 24 hours, except for one thing: Nobody wanted to be the first to call bullsh**. Who will bell the cat? Not the police, and I don’t blame them. Smollett is a vocal critic of President Donald Trump who checks two protected-category ... Read More

Questions for Those Who Believed Jussie Smollett

The “we reported the Jussie Smollett case responsibly” contention has been blasted to smithereens. Twitter accounts and headlines in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times reported as fact Jussie Smollett’s wildly implausible allegations, and many other journalists did so as ... Read More