Historically illiterate

    As we leave Independence Day ’11 in the rear view mirror, let’s lamentably note the latest manifestation of American ignorance. The stats speak for themselves:According to the latest poll conducted by the respected Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, only 58 percent of Americans can correctly name the year that we declared our independence from Great Britain. (This is merely the most important year, and the most frequently invoked year, in America’s life span.) Worse yet, only 31 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 can correctly name the year.I kid you not. Those are indeed the stats. And these are almost as bad:Only 76 percent of Americans can correctly name Great Britain as the nation from which we detached ourselves. Which means that nearly one in four Americans doesn’t know. Worse yet, only 67 percent of American aged 18 to 29 can correctly name Great Britain. Which means that one in three young people doesn’t know. Some of the respondents said that the colonies declared their independence from China, or Japan, or Spain, or Mexico, or France.We’ve long been plagued by stupidity in our civic life, of course, especially with respect to events beyond our borders; there’s an old joke that “war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” And even on the domestic front, we are often dim bulbs. Witness the poll, conducted way back in 1952, which found that only 27 percent of Americans could name two branches of the federal government. Or the poll nearly a decade ago which found that only 20 percent could correctly name the number of U.S. senators. Or the poll in 2006 which found that, while only 25 percent of Americans could name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, over 50 percent could name at least two members of The Simpsons cartoon family. Or the Newsweek poll, earlier this year, which reported that 80 percent had no clue who was president during World War I.But seriously, folks…1776?The lower the age, the worse it gets. Five years ago, in a survey of 14,000 college students, more than half couldn’t correctly name the document that says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” (Big hint, kids: It has something to do with 1776.) And last month, the feds released the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found (to cite just one grievous example) that only two percent of high school seniors could identify the significance of the 1954 high court ruling Brown v. Board of Education.David McCullough, the best-selling historian, got it right two weeks ago when he told The Wall Street Journal, “We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate…It’s shocking.”Actually, it’s not shocking – given our amnesiac culture, the paucity of attention paid to our own past, and the fact that, in our value system, talented student jocks are routinely lauded and recruited whereas history scholars are not. McCullough also blamed the parents: “It’s our fault…We should all take our children to historic places. Go to Gettysburg. Go to the Capitol.” But will kids pay attention? Armed with their in-the-moment Twitter and Facebook tools, who cares about all those dead people, anyway?Nor does it help, on the role model front, that our current political leaders so frequently get history wrong. For instance, Michele Bachmann publicly persists in believing that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father (he was eight years old when his dad signed the Declaration of Independence), and Joe Biden insisted in 2008 that “when the stock market crashed in ’29, Franklin Roosevelt got on television” (Herbert Hoover was president when the market crashed, and virtually no one had a TV until the late ’40s.)But with respect to the Marist poll’s July 4 dimwits: There’s nothing wrong with fireworks, ballgames, and barbecues; however, it would be nice, in the future, if the collective citizenry could at least correctly name the year it all began. That way, we might properly honor the seminal event that the senior John Adams wanted to be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”It was Thomas Jefferson who best summarized the dangers of historical illiteracy: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”By the way, he was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. From Great Britain. In 1776.

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