June 8, 2011 in Opinion

Historical ignorance too pervasive

Leonard Pitts Jr.
 

“Don’t know much about history” – Sam Cooke

It would be the easiest thing in the world to make this about Sarah Palin.

She makes mistakes like Apple makes iPhones, so there is a temptation to catalog her recent bizarre claim that Paul Revere’s midnight ride in April 1775 was to “warn the British.” (He actually rode to alert patriots Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were coming to arrest them) as superfluous evidence of intellectual mediocrity. The instinct is to think her historical illiteracy speaks ill only of her.

But the thing is, she is not the only one.

You may think that statement is meant to encompass the likes of Glenn Beck (who said conservatives started the civil rights movement), and Michele Bachmann (who said the Founding Fathers ended slavery) and it is. But the troubling thing is, it also encompasses many of the rest of us as well. Where history is concerned, this is fast becoming a nation of ignoramuses and amnesiacs.

The alarm bell has been ringing for years. Consider “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century,” a 2000 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based advocacy group. Researchers found that the majority of seniors at the nation’s best colleges could not identify the words of the Gettysburg Address or explain the significance of Valley Forge. They did not know, the study concluded, because they had not been taught. History, the study said, was no longer a requirement in the nation’s top schools.

And then, there is a 2006 assessment by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, often called The Nation’s Report Card. It found that nearly 40 percent of 12th-graders could not identify the purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and only 14 percent could identify and explain a factor leading to U.S. involvement in the Korean War.

Some may think that failure insignificant. History is just rote memorization of names and dates and something about the Smoot-Hawley Act. If kids are bored by that, who cares? No child should be able to finish public school, much less college, without a firm grasp of American history. Because history is not myths we tell to comfort and acquit ourselves.

Nor is it a lever we twist in order to gain political advantage. No, our history is the master narrative of who we are.

It is a narrative of slaves and soldiers, inventors and investors, demagogues and visionaries, of homicide, fratricide and genocide, of truths held self-evident and of government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is a narrative of Europeans leaving Europe yearning to breathe free and the children of slaves leaving the South yearning for the same. It is a narrative of blood on French beaches and a man on the moon.

And we allow all that to be forgotten at our own peril. How can our children write the next chapter of a story they don’t even know? So, while it is comforting to think Palin’s gaffe speaks only to her own considerable limitations, the evidence suggests she is less an exception to, than a reflection of, a nation that is in the process of forgetting itself.

Heck, we are all Sarah Palin now.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His email address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


There are 47 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email