Victor Davis Hanson

In Sam Cooke's classic 1959 hit "Wonderful World," the lyrics downplayed formal learning with lines like, "Don't know much about history ... Don't know much about geography."

Over a half-century after Cooke wrote that lighthearted song, such ignorance is now all too real. Even our best and brightest -- or rather our elites especially -- are not too familiar with history or geography.

Both disciplines are the building blocks of learning. Without awareness of natural and human geography, we are reduced to a sort of self-contained void without accurate awareness of the space around us. An ignorance of history also creates the same sort of self-imposed exile, leaving us ignorant of both what came before us and what is likely to follow.

In the case of geography, Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama recently lectured that, "If we don't deepen our ports all along the Gulf -- places like Charleston, South Carolina; or Savannah, Georgia; or Jacksonville, Florida ..." The problem is that all the examples he cited are cities on the East Coast, not the Gulf of Mexico. If Obama does not know where these ports are, how can he deepen them?

Obama's geographical confusion has become habitual. He once claimed that he had been to all "57 states." He also assumed that Kentucky was closer to Arkansas than it was to his adjacent home state of Illinois.

In reference to the Falkland Islands, President Obama called them the Maldives -- islands southwest of India -- apparently in a botched effort to use the Argentine-preferred Malvinas. The two island groups may sound somewhat alike, but they are continents apart. Again, without basic geographical knowledge, the president's commentary on the Falklands is rendered superficial.

When in the state of Hawaii, Obama announced that he was in "Asia." He lamented that the U.S. Army's Arabic-language translators assigned to Iraq could better be used in Afghanistan, failing to recognize that Arabic isn't the language of Afghanistan. And for that matter, he apparently thought Austrians speak a language other than German.

The president's geographical illiteracy is a symptom of the nation's growing ignorance of once-essential subjects like geography and history. The former is often not taught any more as a required subject in our schools and colleges. The latter has often been redefined as race, class and gender oppression to score melodramatic points in the present rather than to learn from the tragedy of the past.

The president in his 2009 Cairo speech credited the European Renaissance and Enlightenment to Islam's "light of learning" -- an exaggeration if not an outright untruth on both counts.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.