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Misinformed Millennials and Civic Ignorance

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” President Reagan once said. One can only imagine how he would have reacted to the first “Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism,” a recent poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOCMF).

I know some people like to pile on millennials. But when one third of these young Americans say they believe more people were killed under President George W. Bush than under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it’s hard not to speak up.

Some of the problem, ironically, can be blamed on the fact that we won the Cold War. Those who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the “Mutually Assured Destruction” era of the ‘70s and ‘80s naturally have a deeper antipathy toward communism than those who learn about it from history books.

The VOCMF report shows that 80 percent of baby boomers and 91 percent of elderly Americans believe that communism was and still is a problem today. Only 55 percent of millennials take that view.

Meanwhile, just over a third of millennials (37 percent) had a “very unfavorable” view of communism, compared to 57 percent of Americans overall. Nearly half (45 percent) of Americans aged 16 to 20 said they’d vote for a socialist, and 21 percent would vote for a communist.

The same gulf appeared when it came to capitalism: 64 percent of Americans over the age of 65 said they viewed it favorably, compared to just 42 percent of millennials.

But I don’t think it’s just a matter of age. Sure, living through a particular era can give you a better appreciation for how good or bad it was. But part of the problem, I believe, is the history books I just mentioned. Young Americans either aren’t reading them, or they’re being given ones that contain some seriously skewed information.

How else to explain the fact that 42 percent of millennials on the VOCMF report were unfamiliar with Mao Zedong? Millions perished in the forced-labor camps this notorious communist foisted on the Chinese people for decades. Yet more than one out of every three millennials don’t even know who he is.

Two other infamous communist leaders -- Vladimir Lenin and Che Guevara -- are also unfamiliar to a disturbingly large number of millennials (40 percent and 33 percent, respectively).

No wonder such a small number view communism unfavorably. The less you know about how it works in practice and not theory, the rosier it must appear. It’s so much easier to walk about campus in a Che Guevara shirt when he’s just an abstraction, and his notorious legacy and views are unknown to you.

The sad thing is, this has nothing to do with actual intelligence. I worked as a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia public schools in 1965, and while I encountered an attitude of indifference from some students, many were eager to learn and advance, despite the odds against them.

Five decades later, I don’t believe that ratio has changed much. We’ve vastly increased federal funding in the intervening years, but our students are no better off -- indeed, in many ways, they’re worse off. Their bright minds are clearly being underfed, if such a large number of them are more suspicious of capitalism than communism.

The need for more school choice and greater parental control in our education system should be obvious. The stakes are too high for us to simply shake our heads. Let’s not forget the rest of Reagan’s quote about freedom:

“We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

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