My Turn: Historical amnesia part of a broader knowledge deficit

  • Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2013 1:26 p.m.
Daniel Burnett
Daniel Burnett

The wooden teeth. The cherry tree. The white hair.

Our contemporary — and largely incorrect — picture of George Washington is limited indeed. Americans know he was the first president, and maybe that he crossed the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War. They’re pretty sure he was among the Founding Fathers who was present at the Constitutional Convention. But, what else?


As another anniversary of Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22) passes into history, let’s also reflect on the painful truth that too many Americans don’t know about the individuals who have led our nation and shaped our world.

A study of college graduates found that less than half could identify Washington as the American general at the Battle of Yorktown. Worse, the question was multiple choice. And worse still, the other three choices weren’t even from the Revolutionary War period.

The study also found that only 57 percent could identify John Roberts as chief justice. A paltry 17 percent knew the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Historical and civic amnesia is a growing epidemic among Americans — and too many students are being infected.

The cause can be traced to our educational system. Students graduate from high school without a basic knowledge of history, and the trend continues in college. “What Will They Learn?,” a nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges and universities by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that 80 percent of our colleges don’t require students to take even a single foundational course in American history. About 85 percent don’t require students to study foreign language. And despite the state of the global economy, an unbelievable 95 percent of colleges don’t require even a basic economics course.

Too many of today’s graduates are far more likely to be familiar with “Gangnam Style” than the Salem witch trials, with Lady Gaga than Lady Macbeth. A Google search will find over 580 million hits for Justin Bieber — almost six times as many as for Abraham Lincoln.

Employers are noticing these skewed priorities. More than two-thirds of employers believe that our colleges must raise the quality of students’ educations in order for the United States to remain competitive globally, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Washington himself once wrote that “the best means of forming a manly, virtuous and happy people, will be found in the right education of youth. Without this foundation, every other means, in my opinion, must fail.”

What we have today is, quite clearly, not the right education of youth.

It may not be crucial for students to memorize that Jimmy Carter was president No. 39 or that William Henry Harrison had the shortest time in office — to be honest, neither is likely to come up in casual conversation. But to graduate from college without a basic grasp of our history leaves us poorly prepared to face America’s many challenges, not to mention the fact that it is a tragic slap in the face to the men and women who formed America, and have defended her since.

Quite some time after Washington’s war days, 16 million Americans served in World War II. Of them, more than 400,000 didn’t come home. Most of us have relatives who served—and about 1.2 million veterans are still alive today.

Among my family who served was my great grandfather, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. The battle — Hitler’s final lunge for victory — left the German forces heavily depleted and ushered in the end of the war. With 19,000 casualties, the battle was also among the bloodiest in U.S. history.

As Americans, we’re proud of our relatives who took to the beaches of Europe or the craggy cliffs of the Pacific. We’re proud of our relatives who sacrificed here and around the world. But the significance of that sacrifice is fading: When given a multiple choice question to identify in which war the Battle of the Bulge occurred, barely two in five college graduates answered World War II.

History — even relatively recent history — is slipping away. It is estimated that World War II veterans are dying at a staggering rate of 600 a day.

Will we remember them?

Daniel Burnett is press secretary of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit dedicated to academic excellence and accountability.

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