Imagine you are in a car accident on New Year’s Eve. Like Jason Bourne as the CIA agent in The Bourne Identity, you wake up to a strange new reality: You don’t know who you are, where you are, or what you have done in your time on earth. That’s how the new year begins for you.
Surely, it would be a giant shock to discover your memory was gone. Suddenly, you don’t know your friends from your enemies. You have lost any sense of meaning and purpose of your life. How do you prepare for the future if you don’t know your own past?
But what if we as nation were to wake up one day in the same condition—destitute of any knowledge or understanding who we are as a people and what battles we have fought to get to where we are today?
If not yet there, we may be fast approaching that state.
“We’ve been raising several generations of young Americans who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” says David McCullough, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history. As someone who has lectured at scores of colleges and universities, he says, “I know how much these young people — even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning — don’t know. It’s shocking.”
In The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010, the U.S. Department of Education found that only 12 percent of high school seniors performed well enough to be rated “proficient” in their knowledge of the rudiments of U.S. history. To put that another way, 88 percent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating, and only two percent correctly answered a question about the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Something is clearly wrong when almost everyone (99 percent) can correctly identify Beavis and Butthead (according to a questionnaire given to students from American’s top 55 colleges and universities), while 98 percent of high school seniors are unable to identify the Supreme Court ruling that banned racial segregation in public schools.
What is the single most shocking gap in the historical knowledge of young people today? I believe it is the fact so many Americans under the age of 40 are totally unaware of the millions upon millions of people murdered or starved to death by communist regimes around the world over the past 100 years.
The young people today who are happily embracing socialist solutions today don’t have any clue how ruinous (and deadly) socialistic practices have been when put into practice in dozens of countries around the world.
At both the high school and university levels, the true history of Marxist-inspired socialism isn’t being taught — or, if it is, it is being taught in a sanitized fashion that glosses over the enormous crimes against humanity committed by Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and other communist leaders.
When speaking in different forums about the dangers of historical illiteracy, McCullough puts “gratitude” high on his list of the many “benefits to history.” “Every day, we’re all enjoying freedoms and aspects of life that we would never have had if it weren’t for those who figure importantly in history.” And again he says: “I think that America has come further in giving opportunity to the best that’s in human nature than any other country ever in history.”
Yes, we ought to be grateful. More than that, however, we should not take our own freedom and prosperity for granted — thinking they cannot be frittered away or even violently swept away. We should never forget that collectivist thinking is the deadly enemy of individual liberty — the idea that people should be free to lead their own lives as they choose as long as they don’t impose upon the same freedoms of other people.
If, in forgetting the past, our country were ever to adopt socialism, it would be the greatest of all historical tragedies.
Andrew B. Wilson is the resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute, a St. Louis-based free-market think tank.