A recent news item about how our first President George Washington failed to return two library books and how the accrued fines have grown to the whopping sum of $ 300,000 has resulted in some interesting reactions. Writing in today’s Washington Post, columnist Kathleen Parker remarks that in the midst of learning to be a President and leading our fledgling democracy , George Washington still found the time to read . The books he took out weren’t light reading either. One was Emmerich de Vattel’s “Law of Nations,” dealing with international relations, and the other a collection of debates from Britain’s House of Commons. Columnist Parker goes on to bemoan the historical illiteracy of today’s students and the figures she quotes are startling and shameful.
She writes that “In 2006, for instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute tested the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.”
And, “Also in 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, found that only about one-sixth of students in grades four, eight and 12 are proficient in American history.”
On the other hand , students are brilliant when it comes to popular culture. Parker notes that “In a 1999 survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), 98 percent of students from 55 top colleges and universities could identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg, and 99 percent knew who Beavis and Butt-Head were.” The reason for such ignorance is not hard to find…. “Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what they haven’t been taught. An ACTA study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. ”
Adults don’t know much either. A national survey of adults found that83 % failed a basic test on the American Revolution. One reason for this abysmal showing is that a knowledge of history is not perceived as being useful. Since it does not directly lead to a career , students consider it non-essential and focus instead on utilitarian courses such as economics or the sciences or that new darling , business management.As a result, our schools and universities are churning out incomplete adults.
I remember a story I had read about Robert S. McNamara , the U.S Secretary for Defense in the sixties. At one meeting to discuss American involvement in Vietnam, he was cautioned about expanding the U.S presence there. Remember what happened to the French , he was told. McNamara was ignorant about recent history. Even though it was only about 15 years since the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu and their ignominous exit from Vietnam, he did not know! We all know what happened afterwards.
Truly, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.