Magazine article USA TODAY

America Is Suffering from Cultural Amnesia. (American Thought)

Magazine article USA TODAY

America Is Suffering from Cultural Amnesia. (American Thought)

Article excerpt

SURVEYING the battleground at Gettysburg in 1863, Pres. Abraham Lincoln said: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." Alas, he may have been right--not only has his short speech been pretty much forgotten, but so has the Civil War that inspired it.

More than 100 years after the conflict, a Gallup poll of American college seniors found that 42% couldn't date the war to the correct half-century. In 2001, sampling 12- to 17-year-olds, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation discovered that nearly one in four students didn't even know the Civil War had been fought between the North and the South. Thirteen percent figured that it was the U.S. against Great Britain, while five percent guessed it was East vs. West.

In the same poll, over 5,000,000 U.S. teenagers were clueless about the Fourth of July. Fourteen percent thought we had declared our independence from France; three percent, from Native Americans; and one percent, from Canada. So much for 1776!

It's not just early history that students get failing grades on. Americans of all ages even draw a blank when it comes to the 20th century. Questioned in 1995, 60% of adults couldn't name the president who ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb (Harry S. Truman). Even worse, 20% didn't know where--or even if--such a bomb had ever been used.

The shocking results of these surveys show Americans are suffering from a disease called "cultural amnesia," the social equivalent of Alzheimer's disease. Unlike Alzheimer's, though, it afflicts the young as well as the old. Debilitating and progressive, the malady is eating away at America's soul, for just as an individual needs memories to maintain a sense of personal identity, so does a nation need them in order to survive.

Survival means having a sense of continuity. As Civil War historian Bruce Catton put it, "The American story is above all other things a continued story. It did not start with us and it will not end with us." To sense this continuity, we need to know our history, for the self-realization of a nation is based on keeping faith with the unfulfilled dreams and sacrifices of the past. It is to this idea that Lincoln referred in the Gettysburg Address when he spoke of the "unfinished work" that must be done if "this nation ... shall have a new birth of freedom."

Yet, when a national civics test was administered in 1998, 35% of high school seniors failed. As educational researcher Diane Ravitch reported: "Only nine percent of the kids were able to give two reasons why it is important for citizens to be involved in a democratic society."

Combined with their historical ignorance, the civic disengagement of America's young leaves their country's future in peril. More so than any other system of government, a democracy relies on the wisdom and judgment of its people. To quote another president, Thomas Jefferson, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

U.S. schools deserve a fair share of the blame. Ever since the rise of social studies in the early 1900s, the study of the past has taken a back seat to the study of the present. To make matters worse, about a decade ago, when it came to American history in public middle schools or world history in public high schools, fewer than half of the teachers teaching those subjects had ever had any formal training in them. Ironically, just 16.2% of the ones teaching advanced placement courses in world history then had any formal background in the subject. Thus, those who were teaching the most-advanced students proved to possess the least knowledge.

Nor was the situation much better in colleges and universities. Although faculty members were trained, the subjects weren't required. Ten years ago, you could graduate from 88% of America's best colleges and universities without ever having had to take a course in history. …

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