THEY CALL this Presidents’ Day. Or Presidents Day. And if there’s not a copy editor around, you might get away with President’s Day.
You’d be forgiven in wondering why.
Are we celebrating all presidents today? Including the likes of Nixon and Buchanan? Have Americans put aside this day to recognize all the achievements of Grover Cleveland and Chester A. Arthur? What did Mr. Garfield do— besides being shot down, shot down, shot down? We wouldn’t say this in front of our friends from Tennessee, but Andrew Jackson was a cad, an old Indian killer whose presidential policies led directly to the Panic of 1837. Not to mention something called the Trail of Tears.
When it comes to presidents, there’ve been drunks, racists, dolts, incompetents and even a few who might not have wanted the office. Some with filthy mouths and worse policies. Rarely will you get a Washington or Lincoln.
But Washington and Lincoln were born in February, thus the national holiday today. We suppose it’s as good a time as any for a linen sale.
The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship used the occasion of Presidents’ Day 2019 to send out a presser noting Americans’ lack of understanding of our own history. The outfit found that barely a third of Americans (and fewer Arkansans) could pass a test on American history—a test taken from the questions on the U.S. citizenship test. It was a multiple-choice test, and the results were awful.
How many amendments in the United States Constitution?
Who was president during World War II?
How many justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?
What territory did the U.S. buy from France in 1803?
Did we mention the answers were multiple choice? And only in Vermont did a majority receive a passing grade. Worse, the Wilson Fellowship found the younger the American, the less he knows about American history. Only 27 percent of those under the age of 45 could demonstrate a basic knowledge of our shared history.
Some of us cringe when the younger crowd uses the word history to mean something that doesn’t matter any longer, or perhaps something that is gone or soon will be. As in, “I’m history.” Or when somebody is benched on the football field: “He’s history.”
As if the past is ever dead. As the man said, it’s not even past.
But maybe none of this is surprising, given priorities on school campuses these days, and not just high school. It wasn’t that long ago when we found out that at many universities, even history majors aren’t required to take American history.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which studies these things, reported that of the 76 so-called “best” colleges in the country (as deemed by U.S. News & World Report), only about a third require history majors to take history classes on the subject of United States history.
Instead, you could get a degree— in history—by taking such courses as sub-Saharan African politics, East Asian history or maybe something to do with the Romans. What’s worse is that history profs were defending the policies. You’d think they would have been the ones protesting the loudest. Somewhere our old history professor is doing cartwheels in his grave.
Certainly American history isn’t the only kind. But you’d think that American campuses offering history degrees would require American history classes. You’d think the locals would have something to say. Or teach. Some of us would also think that United States history should be required not just for history majors, but for any student at any campus who would like to think himself educated once he left the dorms.
Is history, American history, still important in oh-so-mod 2019? Well, we’ll take the advice of a man named George Washington, who was to have said: “We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.” Yes, sir. Maybe there’s a reason for Presidents’ Day after all, if just to give us an occasion to quote the first among equals at the Founding.
But we wonder. How many young Americans reading this editorial today are thinking: