Phi Beta Cons

Two and a Half Cheers for Historical Amnesia

Every year or so, an organization surveys college students and discovers, shock of shocks, pervasive ignorance of history. Conservatives predictably mount the soapbox to lament this sorry state of affairs. But the story has a more comforting side. Recall that when Henny Youngman was asked, “How’s your wife?” His response was, “Compared to what?” So it is with colossal civic ignorance. Three points.

First, the putative link between levels of civic knowledge and anything of consequence is uncertain and, as far as I know, untested. Being informed or politically active is only part of “good citizenship” (whatever that means) by definition and certainly not in the same league as, say, obeying the law or paying taxes. Conceivably, levels of civic knowledge may be irrelevant.

Second, if one believes that historical amnesia undermines civil society, visit regions where longstanding ethnic/religious/racial grievances are treasured heirlooms dutifully passed down to the next generation. Among Muslims, the Sunni and Shia are still killing one another over an event that transpired over twelve centuries ago. Want something more “modern”? How about Catholic/Protestant strife in Northern Island? Balkans anybody?  How about Turkey and Armenia?

The U.S. is hardly immune to going forward by constantly looking in the rearview mirror. Some Americans are still stewing over the War of Northern Aggression; others are demanding that the horrors of slavery be commemorated at every possible opportunity. When I was a kid, my mother lectured me on early-20th-century American anti-Semitism. Her devotion to history aside, I got over it. My first car was a Ford, and I knew full well that old Henry was a vile anti-Semite.

Third, in today’s intellectual environment, calls to “make youngsters better informed” are often the starting gun for aggrieved groups to advance their stir-the-pot one-sided tales. That history may be a collection of lies is bad enough; worse is when these lies undermine civil society. In K–12, this entails capturing textbooks or even legally requiring class time to recount dimly recalled atrocities. Don’t you know that American housewives during the 1950s were enslaved by Betty Crocker? At the college level, this brings fresh “identity” courses devoted to sustaining anger and, better yet, jobs for resentment mongers.

This is not to justify ignorance. Rather, we must recognize the dangers of schools’ teaching history where they monopolize instruction. Ignorance per se is not the worst problem; far more troublesome is that so few Americans will go beyond ideologically infused schoolbook learning so as to acquire a more balanced, nuanced picture. To invoke a hoary cliché, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and to extend it, especially when lessons are taught by those insisting that today’s government can correct grievances, no matter how ancient or fabricated. Amnesia does have its advantages.


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