When Abraham Lincoln addressed the United States Congress in 1863, he began with these words: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
It was a wonderful, a noble sentiment, and perhaps it was true them. But it’s not true now. Not only can we escape history, we have escaped history, by the simple process of forgetting it.
The schools have done their part to promote this historical amnesia. The Department of Education reported that six out of ten high school seniors couldn’t say how the United States came into existence. (The answer is: through rebellious resistance to the legitimate authority of the British King). Fifty per cent of high school seniors couldn’t say what the Cold War was. (The answer is: the Cold War was a political mistake, but an economic stroke of genius). National history knowledge tests show that most fourth-graders can’t identify the opening passage of the Declaration of Independence, and that most high school seniors can’t explain the checks-and-balances theory that is (or used to be) the <I>rationale</I> behind the three branches of the United States government. These young people will be voting soon.
Back in 2005 a Senate panel considered legislation that would expand national testing in US history, and a pilot program was set up to do just that. But there’s no point in testing, and then throwing up our hands in horror at the results, and then doing nothing about it. Part of the problem is that it’s hard to teach real history today. It’s too full of dynamite political correctness issues that can blow a teacher right out of a job. It’s too carved up into tiny fiefdoms: black history, women’s history, gay history, and so on – until it is impossible to make any sense of it as a whole.
Anyone who tries to teach genuine history is also up against the mass media, and especially movies, television, and video games, which present a bizarre version of the past that consists entirely of conflicts and battles in the Hollywood style between good guys and bad guys. No wonder the kids do badly on their tests. All they know about the past is that was nasty, and that it is gone. People in history have the bad taste to be dead, which certainly won’t happen to us. They were unsophisticated, wore funny clothes, listened to un-amplified non-digitalized music in the days when the only way you could get surround sound was to have several musicians sitting in different positions in a room. Who needs to know about <I>them?</I>
President’s Day is therefore rich in irony. It commemorates the heroes of two of America’s greatest historical stories, but their images are flickering and uncertain. Both were wartime Presidents and both presided over terrible conflicts that practically tore the country apart. We like to forget (because it spoils the story) that the Revolutionary War was also a civil war of loyalists against rebels, and a very ugly one. Even so, Washington is still the most admired President, according to a survey by the <I>Presidential Studies Quarterly,</I> because he won a good, patriotic war. Lincoln, surprisingly, comes tenth on the popularity list, below Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Clinton, and even Nixon. Historians surmise that Lincoln is less admired because he fought an unpopular war that he could have avoided. This is obviously something to be considered by Presidents who worry about their historical legacy. They also need to consider that presidents who do nothing to improve the dreadful state of history education are condemned to be forgotten whatever they do. That’s rough, but it is justice.