Jonah Goldberg

My daughter really, really, really (throw in a few more reallys for accuracy) wants to go to Disney World. Scouting reports from several of her preschool colleagues indicate that there is a large amount of princess activity down there. And not just princesses - real princesses. She's seen fake Cinderellas and Ariels - the royal equivalents of shopping mall Santas - but now she's focused on engaging the real thing, and she's been told that Disney World is where they hang their tiaras. So one day, probably very soon, we'll be heading to Florida to meet the "real" princesses who, despite presumably lavish wealth, charge parents $200 a day or more to take our children to meet them.

I just hope that while we're there, Daddy can have some fun, too. For instance, I would love to meet the "real" Winston Churchill.

You do know Churchill was make-believe, right? That, at least, is what nearly a quarter of British teens recently told pollsters for the British TV channel UKTV Gold. Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes was real, and 47 percent called Richard the Lionheart a fictional character.

This is one of those news stories that pop up with some regularity, highlighting how ignorant people on both sides of the Atlantic are about their own civilization. It's a slightly more scientific confirmation of Jay Leno's man-on-the-street "Jaywalking" segment, in which he asks passersby brainteasers such as, "Where was the Vietnam War fought?" or, "When did the War of 1812 take place?"

A survey of teenagers conducted by the National Constitutional Center found more students able to name the Three Stooges (59 percent) than could name the three branches of U.S. government (41 percent). A 1999 survey of students at 55 elite colleges and universities found that 40 percent couldn't place the U.S. Civil War in the correct half-century. Given that the U.S. hasn't been around for five half-centuries yet, I wonder how many guesses these students needed.

The civic ignorance of the American public is an old lament, a standby for finger-wagging, chin-pulling pundits like yours truly in need of column fodder. And it's probably true that it was ever thus, to some extent; that the masses never had much use for historical dates and names. Though if you read letters written by soldiers during the Civil War, it's hard not to suspect that cultural literacy has been trending southward for a long time (unless, of course, you think the Civil War only happened recently).


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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