How to Get Smart Again

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

How to Get Smart Again


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

The way we teach our children history has undermined our chances for success. A leading Harvard historian and NEWSWEEK columnist offers three ways to make it fun.

Back in the 1840S, a group of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in New York founded the Know-Nothing movement--also known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner or, in the 1850s, the American Party--to agitate against the new wave of immigrants from Catholic Ireland and Germany. When asked about their organization's semi-secret activities, members were supposed to reply, "I know nothing"--hence the name Know-Nothings.

Today's Know-Nothings aren't necessarily opposed to immigrants. They certainly can't feel superior to them, for the simple reason that they know less about the land of their birth than newcomers applying to become citizens of it. A shocking 38 percent of a representative sample of Americans failed the test that all immigrants applying for citizenship are required to take.

Historical knowledge matters. If you don't know the origins of America's unique political institutions, you can't truly appreciate the freedoms you enjoy as a U.S. citizen. If you're ignorant of America's many conflicts--from the War of Independence to the war on terror--you underestimate the price of liberty. And if you have no knowledge of slavery, don't expect to understand the enduring difficulties American society has with the issue of race.

Ordinary Americans don't literally know nothing, of course, but they certainly don't know much. Nearly nine in 10 ( 88 percent) can't name two of the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Only one in 10 Americans ( 12 percent) knows the name of even one author of The Federalist Papers. Only one in five knows who was president during World War I. And only one in four knows what the Cold War was about.

What makes this new evidence of historical ignorance all the more astonishing is that all American states still require high-school students to spend time studying the history of their country.

No one passes through an American education without carrying around for several years a large, lavishly illustrated textbook called something like The History of the United States. It usually starts in the Colonial era and ends with the Cold War. Trendier versions start with the earliest Native Americans and end with Barack Obama's election as president. Either way, the basic national story is there.

Nor is there any shortage of information about the U.S. past after kids graduate from high school. Most colleges oblige students to take at least one history course. There is an entire cable-TV network called the History Channel. Bookstores have shelf upon shelf of American-history books. And big U.S. cities have excellent historical museums.

Every now and then Hollywood, too, gets historical. This year, thanks to Colin Firth's brilliant performance in The King's Speech, most Americans know that the British had a king called George who had a stammer. They might not be 100 percent sure that he was George VI, as opposed to the V or the IV. But most understand that he wasn't George III. Wrong clothes.

So how do we explain the levels of historical ignorance revealed by this survey? In some quarters, it's fashionable to blame the public teachers' union for at least half of society's ills. But I'm not sure it is the prime suspect in this case.

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