Students & Parents | General Education

Opinion: Students not getting history they need

CINCINNATI ENQUIRER   |  December 6, 2014

Seventy-three years ago, a peaceful Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor turned to carnage and panic as Japanese aircraft roared through the Hawaiian skies and hot ammunition ripped into American ships. Caught by surprise, America lost 2,388 military personnel and civilians. The fuse that would send America into the Second World War had been ignited.

The following day, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation and gravely described the “date which will live in infamy.” A wounded but resolute America was at war, and Roosevelt predicted “always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.”

I wonder if we’re living up to that prediction.

The historical significance of Pearl Harbor, its warnings against geopolitical complacency, and its ongoing implications are not even concepts that the majority of our college students would recognize. According to a study of college seniors from elite universities around the country, a third could not identify Germany, Italy and Japan as our wartime enemies. Almost two thirds did not even know the Battle of the Bulge occurred during World War II.

The sacrifices of our greatest generation are being lost on our youngest generation.

This is not a matter of simply amassing facts and dates. It’s about our obligation to teach our young people about the pivotal moments in the defense of the free world – which still needs defending.

Colleges are failing to provide students with the educational foundation they deserve and our country needs. A nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities, What Will They Learn? (, found that 82 percent of our colleges don’t require a foundational course in American history; 87 percent don’t require foreign language, and a shocking 97 percent don’t require economics. Without a solid foundation, how can leaders of tomorrow set a course for the future?

Colleges earned grades based on how many of seven core classes they require: composition, literature, foreign language, American history, economics, math, and science. Out of the 38 colleges and universities from Ohio in the study, just three require even a basic course in American history. Not one requires economics.

The University of Cincinnati and Miami University both earn “C” grades for not requiring literature, American history, economics, or math. Xavier University earns a “B,” but doesn’t require foreign language, American history, or economics.

Too many students today are more likely to know about the Real Housewives of New Jersey than any of the Revolutionary battles that happened there. Lady Macbeth has receded into near oblivion as Lady Gaga takes center stage.

Surveys highlight America’s problem with historical amnesia. Only a quarter knew the effects of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Only 23 percent could identify James Madison as the “Father of the Constitution.” And only 60 percent knew the Constitution established the division of powers.

Nearly three quarters of a century ago, our nation was plunged into a war that would test her mettle and her character for four costly years. Our finest generation took to the shorelines, to the factories, and to the streets with a dedication that ultimately ripped across the globe and helped free millions from tyranny.

From the blood and bullets grew a new America with a greater consciousness of its role in securing worldwide liberty. The shaken nation that was pushed into war in 1941 was not the same nation that emerged in 1945.

The Roman orator Cicero, who coincidentally is thought to have died on Dec. 7, 43 BCE, observed, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” Are our young people developing into adult citizens that a free society requires?

It’s hard to believe they are when only 60 percent of Americans know FDR was president during World War II. Even among Americans with a college education, fully one in four did not know – on a multiple choice survey!

If we fail to educate our young people on the importance of freedom and the sacrifice of their ancestors, they will remain – as Cicero said – children forever.



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