Eags considers the level of historical knowledge in the Land O'The Free and the Home O'The Brave and would give doofi in our midst an F in history. Before the doofi in Congress can vote on an immigration bill, they should be required to take and pass the Nauralization Test that all non-citizens must pass before taking the oath of citizenship. Those doofi with failing grades should be stripped of their vote and sent home to be waterboarded. If this is (fair & balanced) history miseducation, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Lost In The Past
By Timothy Egan
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Ask a high school senior what the Great War was all about and you’re likely to get a shrug or a stab based on a recent episode of “Game of Thrones.” Hint: its 100th anniversary is this year. Hint: globe-straddling old empires collapsed and new horrors, from genocide to slaughter by poisonous gas, were ushered in. Hint: its repercussions are with us still, from Syria to Russia to the American role as international cop.
If you said “First World War,” you’re at the top of the class. The perception that we’re raising a nation of doofi about the past was generated, in part, by a 2010 report that only 12 percent of students in their last year of high school had a firm grasp of our nation’s history. Add to that a 2011 Pew study showing that nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority — not slavery — and you’ve got a serious national memory hole.
But before blaming the victims, look at the top. Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities and educators — dunce caps for all. Even the History Channel now does very little history, with a menu heavy on swamp people, big rigs and pawn stars.
Of late, you had the venture capitalist Tom Perkins compare the call for higher taxes in the United States to Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned, anti-Jewish riots in Nazi Germany of 1938. Anyone who is literate about history would never liken a rampage that burned or destroyed 267 synagogues, vandalized 7,500 businesses and killed at least 91 Jewish people to progressive taxation.
This was followed by a claim from Ken Langone, the Home Depot co-founder and big-time Republican Party donor, comparing the plight of our country’s very rich to the objects of Hitler’s wrath. Or something. Langone doubled down on his comments this month; in trying to clarify his absurd Nazi analogy, he only made it worse.
Men of great wealth, as Teddy Roosevelt once observed, often don’t know much beyond the source of that wealth. “You expect a man of millions, the head of a great industry, to be a man worth hearing,” he said. “But as a rule they don’t know anything outside their own business.”
Nazis and slavery are the two big topics that consistently draw out the woefully ignorant, and prompt the most facile analogies. But more recent events can also produce conclusions based on a limited understanding of the past.
On the media-celebrity side, we can only hope nobody is getting their history from Sarah Palin, who famously had to be schooled on the origin of the Korean War, among other things, after being picked as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008. She recently declared that torture is as American as Sunday school. “If I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” she said, to great applause at a convention of gun fanatics.
One doesn’t expect Palin to know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment,” or that torture is banned by international treaties signed by the United States. But is it too much to ask for her to realize that Imperial Japan, our enemy in World War II, was prosecuted for waterboarding? Allow me to introduce Palin to her former running mate, John McCain. “The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American P.O.W.s,” he said in 2007. “Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding.”
Educators, not just those in thrall to teaching to “the test,” share plenty of the blame for “raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” as David McCullough called the problem. For educational malfeasance this year, look to the assignment given eighth graders in the Rialto, Calif., school district. Students were asked to consider whether the Holocaust was created for political gain or didn’t happen at all — a bit of homework the Simon Wiesenthal Center called “grotesque.”
When this blew up, the district blamed misguided interpretation of Common Core requirements for critical thinking. You can blast Common Core, the straitjacket of our educational system, for many things, but teaching outright lies is not among them.
I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.
Burns said it’s because many schools no longer stress “civics,” or some variation of it. Why? Students complain that it’s boring, or the standards are too demanding. Civics, said Burns, is “the operating system” for citizenry; if you know how government is constructed, it’s no longer a complicated muddle, but a beautiful design.
Duncan said that Americans tended to be “ahistorical” — that is, we choose to forget the context of our past, perhaps as a way for a fractious nation of immigrants to get along. Right after the Civil War, the South was allowed to promote the inaccurate narrative of “the Lost Cause” — all about states’ rights and Northern aggression. In fact, slavery was enshrined into the very first article of the Confederate Constitution; it was the casus belli, and the founding construct of the rebel republic. That history may hurt, but without proper understanding of it, you can’t understand contemporary American life and politics.
He also mentioned how immigrants may know more about history than fifth-generation natives. To pass a citizenship test, they are required to learn things about the glory and infamy, the power and abuses — the operating system — of this democracy. It’s not too onerous to ask the same thing of 18-year-olds across the land. You can’t fix stupid, as the comic line goes; but you don’t have to teach it. Ω
[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]
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