Don't know much about history

Posted: Jul 15, 2003 12:00 AM

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." -- Thomas Jefferson

Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, enjoys a nice view of the Capitol dome from his office window. He is less satisfied with what he sees of America's common culture.

Cole, who taught Renaissance art for many years before undertaking a stint in government, thinks the United States is in danger of losing its national identity through a loss of historical memory. If the words Yorktown, bleeding Kansas, reconstruction, Ellis Island, Marbury vs. Madison, "Remember the Maine," the Spirit of St. Louis, Midway, "I shall return," the Battle of the Bulge, the Hiss/Chambers case and "Ich bin ein Berliner" mean no more to most Americans than to the average Malaysian, what is it that makes us Americans?

Part of what makes America unique is that nationality arises from this shared history and from shared values and beliefs. It is not possible to become a Frenchman, a Swiss or a Russian by moving to those countries and adopting their beliefs. Nationality there is too bound up in blood, ethnicity and land. But every immigrant who arrives in the United States can become an American by adopting our beliefs.

There was a time when we had so much confidence in the superiority of our way of life that we aggressively taught our values to new immigrants and insisted that they master the basics of American history, the English language and civics before being eligible for citizenship. Today, we're not even teaching history to our own schoolchildren. And we are in the grip of a truly frightening collective ignorance. As Cole warns, when you don't know your history, you're more inclined to believe the kooky versions of it served up by everyone from Oliver Stone to Michael Moore. That is why the National Endowment for the Humanities is sponsoring a "We the People" initiative to improve the teaching of American history.

If you doubt the scope of the problem, consider a poll commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. David McCullough, author of  John Adams and other wonderful works of history, said, "Anyone who doubts that we are raising a generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate needs only to read this truly alarming report."

Testing only seniors at the top 55 liberal arts colleges, the poll consisted of questions from a high-school-level exam (or what used to be high-school-level work). Eight-one percent received a grade of D or F. Only one student got every question right.

Thirty five percent thought that "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" (the Marxist nostrum) was in the Constitution. Thirty-four percent didn't know. More than half thought Germany, Italy or Japan was a U.S. ally during World War II. Only 29 percent knew that Reconstruction referred to post-Civil War political arrangements. Thirty percent believe that the president may suspend the Bill of Rights in wartime. (They didn't ask how many knew what the Bill of Rights was.)

Only 29 percent could correctly place the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the context of the War in Vietnam. Forty percent could not place the Civil War in the correct half-century. (Ken Burns, call your office.) Only 42 percent knew to whom the words "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen" referred (George Washington). Fewer than one quarter could identify James Madison as the "father of the Constitution," and only 22 percent recognized the words "Government of the people, by the people and for the people" as belonging to the Gettysburg Address. (Here's a question for buffs: Who was the keynote speaker at Gettysburg that day? Answer: Edward Everett.)

Cole hopes the NEH grant to improve the teaching of American history will spur colleges to reinstate history requirements. Among the 55 leading schools in the survey, none requires a course in American history. In grades K-12, history has been replaced by "social studies," which is like replacing beef stew with Gatorade.

Standards in many areas of education have declined. But as Cole stresses, this is unlike the slide in math or science (important as those are). If we lose our history, we could lose our nation.