The Campaign Spot

Our Recent History: The Undiscovered Country!

A quick thought on this fair lament from Erick Erickson about today’s young pundits not knowing their recent history . . .

To the extent that our high schools teach American history, they begin before the Revolution and work up to as close to the present as time permits. If your classes were like mine, the process of advancing through history inevitably slowed at points, and everything after World War Two was cramped and rushed to get in before final exams. Maybe the class got up to Vietnam or so. Even in higher education, the not-too-distant history — say, post-Watergate — is relatively uncovered and unexplained, in part because it’s too recent to be “history” and in part because it’s less “interesting” than the bigger conflicts. (One could argue that the post-Watergate 1970s and early 1980s were when the failures of 1960s liberalism became particularly clear, and so perhaps some in the academic Left are less interested in studying that.) In this country, we’re blessed with a popular fascination with history, but only on certain topics and eras: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the “Old West,” World War Two, the era of Prohibition and Gangsters . . .

So during the writing of this book and other recent projects, I was stunned at how few details I knew and heard discussed about recent history: the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Iranian hostage crisis, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, the invasion of Grenada.  As a child, you’re vaguely aware of significant events going on, but you don’t understand the details. My formative years covered the assassination attempt on Reagan, the Challenger explosion, the Soviets shooting down Korean Airlines Flight 007 . . .

So as much as it may seem that Americans walk around with only a cursory knowledge of key eras of the nation’s history, they’re probably even less informed about not-so-distant history. About a decade ago, among a group of otherwise smart and well-informed friends, I made a reference to Idi Amin. (This was before the release of the movie The Last King of Scotland.) No one knew who I was talking about.

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