Who are we?

Posted: Dec 24, 2002 12:00 AM
The outpouring of patriotism following Sept. 11, 2001 was gratifying and reassuring to many, including this columnist, who had worried about the state of the nation's psyche. But each new report about our national ignorance tickles a nerve of anxiety. Two recent surveys show that Americans are getting dumber (Ok, not dumber ... more ignorant) with every passing year. The National Association of Scholars commissioned a study on general knowledge and found that today's college seniors score below those of the 1950s in one key area: history. In fact, today's college students scored below high-schoolers of the 1950s. Asked, "In what country was the battle of Waterloo fought?" only 3 percent of college seniors answered correctly (Belgium), as opposed to 44 percent of 1950s high-school graduates. Only 53 percent of today's college students could correctly identify the profession "associated with Florence Nightingale." In the 1950s, 87 percent of high school grads knew the correct answer (nursing). Seventy-eight percent of today's college seniors knew that the purple heart is the decoration awarded to those wounded in combat, but 90 percent of high-schoolers knew it in the 1950s. The National Endowment for the Humanities cites data showing that 32 percent of Americans believe that "the president may suspend the Bill of Rights in wartime." Asked, "Does the Constitution include the following statement about the proper role of government: 'From each according to this ability, to each according to his needs'?" 35 percent of Americans said yes, 31 percent said no, and 34 percent said they weren't sure. This dictum was pronounced by Karl Marx. More than a third of respondents were unable to identify the document that outlines the division of power in our government. Eight percent picked "the Marshall Plan," 2 percent chose "the Declaration of Independence," and 26 percent said "the Articles of Confederation." Only 60 percent correctly checked "the Constitution." That same 60 percent knew that the Civil War was fought between 1850 and 1900. But 26 percent thought it took place between 1800 and 1850, and 10 percent said it happened between 1750 and 1800. Only 29 percent knew to what the term "Reconstruction" referred -- i.e., "Readmission of the Confederate states and the protection of the rights of black citizens." Fifty-nine percent believed it was "Repairing the physical damage caused by the Civil War," and 8 percent thought it referred to "Payments of European countries' debts to the United States after the First World War." More? OK, asked which of the following nations was an ally of the United States in World War II, 18 percent said Germany; 9 percent said Japan (!), 48 percent said (correctly) the Soviet Union, and 24 percent said Italy. Asked what the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was about, 43 percent guessed that it "ended the war in Korea." Only 29 percent knew that it permitted President Lyndon to expand the war in Vietnam. Does it matter? Only if you care about the nation's soul. Ignorance of history won't slow down the economy. We can still shop at Best Buy and Wal-Mart and Nordstrom's even without a sense of history. And we can still watch "Friends" and "The Sopranos." But precisely because we are such a diverse nation and so welcoming to immigrants, teaching history, more than anything else, instills a sense of nationhood. If you don't even know Lincoln's Gettysburg Address or Washington's Farewell, if the sacrifices and hardships of the western pioneers slip down the memory hole, if the clash of civilizations between the Europeans and American Indians is not honestly related, if the flu epidemic of 1918 is not studied and mourned, if the unity and courage of the World War II generation is not known, if the civil rights struggle is forgotten, who are we? Our history defines us, even if we are first generation Americans. Because the history of this nation is the history of liberty, imperfectly achieved to be sure, but steadily strived for and calling up mighty sacrifices from our ancestors. To languish in ignorance of that history is a kind of sacrilege.