ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Home Is Where the History Is

June 22, 2005 by ACTA

Writing for the L.A. Times, David Gelernter argues that "only fools would rely on the schools" to teach their children history. An excerpt:

My son told me about a high school event that (at first) I didn't understand. A girl in his English class praised the Vietnam War-era draft dodgers: "If I'd lived at that time and been drafted," she said, "I would've gone to Canada too."

I thought she was merely endorsing the anti-war position. But my son set me straight. This student actually believed that if she had lived at the time, she might have been drafted. She didn't understand that conscription in the United States has always applied to males only. How could she have known? Our schools teach history ideologically. They teach the message, not the truth. They teach history as if males and females have always played equal roles. They are propaganda machines.

Ignorance of history destroys our judgment. Consider Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who just compared the Guantanamo Bay detention center to Stalin's gulag and to the death camps of Hitler and Pol Pot--an astonishing, obscene piece of ignorance. Between 15 million and 30 million people died from 1918 through 1956 in the prisons and labor camps of the Soviet gulag. Historian Robert Conquest gives some facts. A prisoner at the Kholodnaya Gora prison had to stuff his ears with bread before sleeping on account of the shrieks of women being interrogated. At the Kolyma in Siberia, inmates labored through 12-hour days in cheap canvas shoes, on almost no food, in temperatures that could go to minus-58. At one camp, 1,300 of 3,000 inmates died in one year.

"Gulag" must not go the way of "Nazi" and become virtually meaningless. Europeans love calling Israelis "Nazis"--a transparent attempt to slough off their guilt like rattlesnakes shedding skin. ("See, the Jews are as bad as we were!") I'd like to ban the word "Nazi" except when applied to Nazis. Lawbreakers would be ordered to learn what Nazi actually means.

I was amazed to hear about teenagers who don't know Fact 1 about the Vietnam War draft. But I have met college students who have never heard of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge--the genocidal monsters who treated Cambodia in the 1970s to a Marxist nightmare unequaled in its bestiality since World War II.

And I know college students who have heard of President Kennedy but not of anything he ever did except get assassinated. They have never heard JFK's inaugural promise: that America would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and the success of liberty." But President Bush remembers that speech, and it's lucky he does.

To forget your own history is (literally) to forget your identity. By teaching ideology instead of facts, our schools are erasing the nation's collective memory. As a result, some "expert" can go on TV and announce (20 minutes into the fighting) that Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever "is the new Vietnam"--and young people can't tell he is talking drivel.

Gelernter's focus on recent U.S. and world history allows him to show with damning efficacy how Americans' deepening historical ignorance--which is in many ways the result of schools' substitutions of trite ideological lessons for more textured and subtle explorations of events and issues--makes them vulnerable to the sorts of outrageously manipulative comparisons and equivalencies that have become common in politics and the media. Because increasingly we as citizens do not know what we do not know, we cannot recognize that we cannot think.

Gelernter's article is a useful reminder of what we already know about the state of history education in the U.S. In 2000, ACTA published a troubling report on this very issue. Entitled Losing America's Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century, the report documents how little even the most elite college students know about the past. Among other things, ACTA learned that only a little more than half the students surveyed knew basic facts about American democracy and the Constitution; that only about a third knew that Washington was a general at the battle of Yorktown; that only about a fifth could recognize a passage from the Gettysburg Address; and that more than a third did not know that the U.S. Constitution establishes the division of power in the American system of government. By contrast, 99% knew who Beavis and Butthead are, and 98% knew Snoop Doggy Dogg to be a rapper. The report is well worth a look; you can take the 34-question multiple choice quiz that was used as the basis of the study and compare your own answers to those given by the surveyed students.

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