The esteemed late historian David McCullough had an insomnia problem.
During his visit with his doctor, the physician asked what was keeping McCullough up at night. He replied, “I have to tell you – part of it is worrying about what is happening in our country.”
His physician would later remark about the conversation, “Every day, as [McCullough] reads the papers, it seems as if leaders are taking positions based on politics – and have forgotten about history. They are unaware of the past, and uninterested in how they will be remembered in the future.”
It is with this story of David McCullough’s sleeplessness that I start the first chapter of my new book, Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story. Why did I choose this story? Because America’s increasing ignorance and willful disregard for our history should not just have kept David McCullough up but make all of us concerned about our nation’s future as well.
As it has been said, the leaders of a country reflect the populace they represent. And as I document in the book, survey after survey demonstrates how woefully uninformed American citizens are about nation’s history and freedoms. Thus, our current cultural and political morass in which we find ourselves.
A 2009 survey of Oklahoma high school students, who would now be in their mid-thirties and casting votes and perhaps even running for and holding political office, found that only one in four could name George Washington as the first president of the United States. Only 10 percent knew there were nine justices on the Supreme Court, and only 29 percent were aware that the president headed the executive branch of the government. Only 3 percent of students were able to answer six out of the ten questions – the passing score for the U.S. citizenship test.
Nearly ten years later, things had not improved. A 2018 survey done by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation investigated the civic and historical knowledge of people in all fifty states and found only 53 percent were able to earn a passing grade in U.S. history. Eighty-five percent could not identify the year the U.S. Constitution was written. Even more alarmingly, one in four did not know freedom of speech was guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. On the last item, we are seeing that ignorance played out daily in our current “cancel” culture.
But the ignorance is not confined to civics. The same 2018 study found that 72 percent of those surveyed did not know which states comprised the original thirteen colonies; 37 percent believed Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb; and 12 percent thought Dwight Eisenhower led the military in the American Civil War – thirty years before he was born!
Does it really matter if people don’t know who invented the light bulb or who led the Northern forces in the Civil War? Yes, it does. Ignorance of history – including historical details – is isolating. When we do not know the stories behind the things that make up our daily lives – things as disparate as light bulbs, freedom of speech, and who led the military battles to restore the Union or defeat the Axis powers in World War II, we forget what labor and effort those things cost our forebears. And when we forget, we no longer value them, and when we cease to value things, we stand to lose them. To use the current vernacular, they are “cancelled” – to be banished from our cultural memory.
In addition, this collective ignorance has led to a collapse of civil discourse. We have no shared language, which makes it impossible to have meaningful discussions about difficult topics. This loss of a shared language has become so complete that many Americans either do not recognize or do not appreciate the words of our founding documents – words, regardless of how well they have been implemented, that represent a new standard for human rights and political dignity. When those words are lost, so is that standard.
In The Life of Reason, a sweeping study of how human imagination and reason work together to bring order from chaos, the philosopher George Santayana wrote one of his most famous lines, “Those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” He recognized that a historical sense – a grounding in what has come before – is essential, both on an individual and societal level, to bring civilization and order from the chaos of our perceptions and passions. If we have no historical sense, we are swept along by events and dominated by our reactions to those events. We cannot view events in context; we cannot balance our perceptions with awareness of what may be happening beyond our perceptions. And as a result, we get caught in the same vicious cycles that have brought down civilizations for the past ten thousand years.
When there is no historical context to draw on, no shared history, and no understanding of how government works, this lack of context becomes seed to sow division and discord in hearts and minds. When people are not equipped to refute an argument and lack critical thinking skills to see beyond the rhetoric, they tend to accept practically anything, regardless of how outrageous, at face value. They become easy prey for demagogues – from the Left and the Right alike – to be exploited for a certain agenda – they have become what has been called “useful idiots.”
When you add social media to the mix, the result is a toxic brew where personal opinions are presented as facts and misinformation to spread to an ignorant populace, dividing our nation into various tribes all pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. There is no room for civilized disagreement, and we get the types of leaders that had David McCullough reaching for the Unisom.
But as I detail in my book, it is not just mere ignorance of history and civics that is our problem. Our even greater problem is the deliberate misrepresentation and distorted interpretations of our past that have led to our current cancel culture and disregard for the sacrifices of those who went before us. Whether it be the so-called “1619 Project” or the revisionist interpretations of the late Howard Zinn of our history and heritage, several generations have now grown up with a disregard, and in many cases contempt, for the very principles upon which our nation was founded.
Dwight Eisenhower, who actually led the Allied Forces in World War II and not the North in the Civil War, said in his prophetic 1953 inaugural address, “A people that values its privileges above its principles, soon loses both.” Eisenhower could have been describing modern-day America. We have forgotten our principles, while exalting our privileges, but without principles to serve as a foundation, we will eventually lose our privileges.
That is what we are seeing being played out in our culture and why I was compelled to write the book. We are where we are as a nation because we have either forgotten the past or have rewritten its history to depict our nation as an inhumane disaster instead of a shining city on a hill. If we are to live civilly with each other, and if we are truly to be the United States, instead of the divided states, we must teach future generations our true history and heritage, the good and the bad, as well as provide them with the education they need to be capable, responsible citizens. That is what will bring us back together again as a nation – with liberty and justice for all.