George Santayana famously taught, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is often misquoted as "those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." The misquote assumes that the danger derives from men and women forgetting the past. Santayana, however, was also addressing those who never learn the past in the first place, like most of our kids today.
Sadly, but factually, most American kids are reaching their majority with no sense of the lessons of history because they are frighteningly deficient in knowledge of American or world history. That's according to the recently released findings of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated program within the U.S. Department of Education. It is widely viewed as the nation's Annual Report Card. In a nutshell, most of our kids are flunking history and civics.
History is the most important subject we have to teach and to learn. Without a good sense of history, individuals navigate through life, as do nations, guided more by instinct and ambition than by knowledge. That's why so much of the world's historical landscape has been despoiled repeatedly with blood-soaked soil and the broken bodies of hapless men, women, and children. That's also why, even today, ignoramuses hang Nazi banners over freeways and give Nazi salutes to passing motorists. It is why, even today, in America, we find men guilty of seditious conspiracy to overthrow an American election.
So, it seems history sadly remains "just one damn thing after another," as the late renowned historian Arnold Toynbee once lectured. Today, however, the ramifications of the world continuing to careen from one damn thing after another is potentially catastrophic, as the destructive power of nations that are aligned against one another threatens the survivability of life as man has known it during the relatively few short years he has roamed the face of the earth. This is a really bad time for America's youth to be flunking history.
And why are we turning out one generation after another of graduates who are so lacking in an understanding of the broad sweep of history? Mainly because we've turned out one generation after another of secondary-school teachers and, yes, college professors, who are themselves the product of an education system that has failed to prioritize the importance of teaching history.
It isn't just a secondary school problem either. Our colleges and universities are staffed by educators who are often the products of school systems that gave short shrift to American history. While nearly all colleges and universities require some history to graduate, few require a solid foundation in American or world history. Some of our most renowned universities, including Yale, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania, turn out history majors who have not taken any courses in American History. A course in "Love and Politics in Early India," offered at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is perfectly fine, but not as a substitute for a meaningful foundational history requirement.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which began grading colleges and universities on their commitment to teaching such core subjects as history, math, and economics, refers to the lack of knowledge that students have of American history as "a crisis in civic education." And, indeed, it is.
According to ACTA, even such heralded institutions of higher learning as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UNC-Chapel Hill, UCLA, Berkeley, and Stanford don't meet ACTA's history standard. Indeed, according to ACTA, only 18 percent of four-year colleges require a foundational course in U.S. history or government, and 70 percent of the nation's top colleges do not even require history majors to take a course in U.S. history.
This is a serious dereliction, a breath-taking absence of purpose; assuming a future better than the past is always a purpose worth pursuing.
Those among us, here and abroad, who will lead bereft of an understanding of history are almost sure to repeat, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, the worst of it. That is why, today, so much of the 2020s is so tragically reminiscent of the 1930s.
And, sadly, that's where we in America could be headed—to a potentially dystopian future heavily populated by history ignoramuses. That's because only 13% of American kids are proficient in history, and less than 25% are proficient in civics by the time they get to high school. And past studies suggest that they don't come out of high school any wiser than when they came in when it comes to learning history.
It's a worldwide problem, and we have every indication we could pay a worldwide price for it. For example, last year's Democracy Report from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg says that for the first time in two decades, there are currently more closed autocracies than liberal democracies operating around the world.
While researchers say that some former authoritarian countries seem to be turning toward democracy after years of democratic dismantling, a global decline in democracy is, nonetheless, taking place. More and more people are now living under closed autocratic regimes. Sadly, the world hasn't been this anti-democratic in over 35 years.
According to Staffan Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute, 72% percent of the world's population, that's 5.7 billion people, live under authoritarian rule. The percentage of the world's population that lives in autocratic countries pretty much closed off from the rest of the world (2.2 billion people) is now more than twice that of those who live in liberal democracies (1 billion).
Lindberg says the rate of nations dealing with current democratic setbacks, or autocratization, has dramatically increased over the past decade (from 13 to 42 countries between 2002 and 2022). That's the highest figure ever measured by V-Dem.
So, what does all of this mean? We like to think the long arc of history naturally bends toward justice, freedom, and the thinking of men like Abraham Lincoln or Vaclav Havel, who led the 1989 velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia, but it doesn't. The arc of history doesn't naturally bend one way or the other. The arc of history bends to the force of those who seize power or the judgment of well-informed citizens who bring their leaders to power. Well-informed citizens choose well-informed and well-intended leaders. Today, we are producing citizens in America who are ill-informed about American history and basic civics. Those who know and understand little or nothing or the past will give us the future we deserve unless we address this sad reality, and the sooner, the better.
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Certainly we Americans and all who wish to live in democracies need to teach and learn more history. But understanding history requires understanding the tensions and contentions behind past conflicts. History cannot be learned by rote. It is not just the dates of victories or offenses causing grudges. It should not be romanticized. We need all sides to the story. For example, our constitution was the result of many compromises. How? What tensions result?
It's unfortunate .... and has been a slow decline - in my opinion - since the 70s - as many in the teaching profession think badly of American excellence. History can be studied as an adult and there are many free/fee sources, but one must have the motivation to do it. Walter Isaacson has written several good books on the revolutionary period - and there are many others. The country was founded on - at the time - real revolutionary principles. Yes, it has taken time to make them come true for all Americans - but it is happening - if citizens study and learn and practice ... AND turn off their media.