In last week’s column we looked at how history is not destiny but ignoring it runs the risk of repeating its lessons. Here we look at whether the U.S. is doing the latter. Most of the conflicts around the world now have historical roots, and research reveals that our citizens—especially the young—know little about either the history or the geography involved.

In last week’s column we looked at how history is not destiny but ignoring it runs the risk of repeating its lessons. Here we look at whether the U.S. is doing the latter. Most of the conflicts around the world now have historical roots, and research reveals that our citizens—especially the young—know little about either the history or the geography involved.

We are all familiar with our primary care physician performing a ‘history and physical’ before diagnosing you. We wouldn’t seek the advice of any physician who skipped your physical history yet routinely we conduct civic affairs ignorant of the politicians or policies at stake.

In 2014 a student group at Texas Tech University went around campus and asked three questions: “Who won the Civil War?,” Who is our vice president?” and “Who did we gain our independence from?” Students’ answer ranged from “the South?” for the first question to “I have no idea” for all three of them. However, when asked about the show Snookie starred in [“Jersey Shore”] or Brad Pitt’s marriage history , they answered correctly. [1]

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s report, “Education or Reputation?” examined the “Top 25” liberal arts colleges and universities nationwide and found that “not a single institution except for the military academies requires a foundational, college-level course in American history or government.” [2]

Sarah Lawrence, Yonkers, NY, is the most expensive college in the country costing $61,236 for full tuition, fees, and room and board. Asked if they require a history course of all undergraduates, their spokesperson replied that students select their own curriculum, but if they choose ‘history’ they assume they would have to take one or more courses in the discipline. Middlebury College, long the most expensive, allows their students to meet their historical studies requirement with “Mad Men and Mad Women” that uses the television show ‘Mad Men’ as a visual and narrative foundation for the course content.

Eminent twentieth century historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote the following which I have quoted in several articles. “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books manufacturing a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” I would add the following footnote to last week’s column on “Great Again” that if we have never learned a valid history of when and what that time was, then any myth answering those questions will do.

The People

In his book “Just How Stupid Are We?”, the author emphasizes that “The People” named in our founding documents are the basis of our democracy. He then goes on to document the lack of the “people’s” knowledge of history and civic affairs. His answer to the question raised in the book’s title is the people are abysmally ignorant of their history and civic affairs. Being so, our electorate prefers the myths of their choice over facts. What makes ‘fake news’ possible is not only politicians and journalists but listeners so unaware of relevant and valid facts past or present they are incapable of judging truth. [3]

This problem came up in the Constitutional Convention in the matter of how to elect the president. Southern states would not ratify the Constitution unless slaves, a sizeable portion of their population, were given weight in the number of U.S. representatives they would be allotted, and small states worried that they would be rendered impotent by large states. So, four categories were not given the vote e.g., non-property owners, women, American Indians and slaves.

Though not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, this matter implicitly alluded to the capability of voters. Four of the 15 post-Civil War constitutional amendments were ratified to extend voting rights to different groups of citizens. The Electoral College and State Legislators selected Senators until 1913 for fear that ordinary citizens weren’t qualified to vote. Ditto, youths were permitted to fight for our country at age 18 but not to vote until 1971. (Comment: The ability to kill is not the same as the ability to discern the quality of leaders.) Women were considered “childlike and incapable of independent thought” and thereby could not be counted on to vote responsibly” by the framers until given the vote in 1920. American Indians had to wait until 1924.

Other than age (35), citizenship, birth in this country, and 14 years of residency here, there are no qualifications for president. More is said about ‘inability’ or ‘disability’ requiring removal from office than of ability to assume office.

Hamilton, writing to Jefferson feared that pure direct democracy by the majority could elect a demagogue who, rather than work for the benefit of all the citizens could set out to either harm those in the minority or work only for those of the upper echelon. The Electoral College was created as a safety measure to prevent such scenario.

Hamilton preferred the Electoral Colleges, “To minimize risk of foreign machinations and inducements, the electoral college would have only a ‘transient existence.”

[1] Naseem, Saba, Smithsonian.Com, May 28, 2015.

[2] Kabbany, Jennifer, The College Fix, Jan.28, 2014.

[3] Shenkman, Rick, Just How Stupid Are We?, Basic Books, 2008.