Wednesday, May 17, 2023

How Inadequate American History Education Prefigures Political Ignorance & Horrific Choices


College age voters in 2008 had no doubt who and what they were voting for as they yelled 'Obamanos!' on way to polls


 It was Thomas Jefferson who first pointed out the supreme importance of the citizen's knowledge background in his Notes on Virginia, i.e.

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. AND TO RENDER THEM SAFE, THEIR MINDS MUST BE IMPROVED"

Why the difficulty?  Jefferson knew, as any intelligent American would, that being a "safe depository" of democracy in one's nation meant being attentive to its politics, history and political dynamics. That includes an easy recognition of the most important, critical issues at a given time, the most rational choices in each case, and not being distracted by the inevitable 'push' and 'pull' or divisions, even squabbling, that occurs in a nation that exalts free speech. 

That came to the fore recently when I read two different articles, one in the LA Times (by Nicholas Goldberg) and the other in NY Times, about youthful American voters and their current lapses, political tendencies and especially knowledge of U.S. history.

In the latter case, we were informed by Nicholas Goldberg in his op-ed on Oct. 12 about the appalling holes in American history knowledge:

"Most Americans don’t know which countries the United States fought against in World War II or when the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Good luck having them point to Ukraine on a map, much less Belarus. Watch them stare blankly if you ask who represents them in the state legislature or what rights are protected by the 1st Amendment.

There is nothing particularly new about this. As far back as April 4, 1943, the New York Times reported on its front page that college freshmen around the country showed “a striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of United States history.” Among other things, the paper reported that only 6% could name the 13 original states."

This is nothing short of horrific given our history has now been 'weaponized' by the likes of Trump as well as Florida Gov. Ron Desantis.  In the case of Trump, as Goldberg notes, as president "he created a 1776 commission to do battle with the radicals and socialists he insists dominate our schools. Our children, he said, are being fed a “twisted web of lies” about the United States in which the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains.”  In fact, it was Trump's bogus commission that engendered the twisted lies and as Goldberg confirms, resulted in propaganda.  Desantis is no better, and his miseducation mandates have already banned or circumscribed the teaching of aspects of the Civil War, and effects of 'Jim Crow' racial segregation laws in 1950s-60s.  In his latest punch back, he has limited teaching of aspects of the Holocaust, which - while not American history - did affect millions of American Jews.  

The other article emphasized the 'meh' attitude of many younger voters in the run up to next year's momentous general election. A dreadful, recurring thread was that a sizeable proportion expressed a willingness to "sit it out".  One Gen Z kid professed a "dislike for either of these old cheugy guys".  And prefers younger blood. In other words, because this kid can't get his way with the choices offered, would be willing to effectively cast a vote for the criminal gangster and sexual predator Trump by his not -voting. Which is also a choice.  

Others expressed horror at Biden's Willow drilling decision in AK, as a reason to not vote. Yet other black voters- male and female- expressed disappointment Biden "hasn't done enough to win their vote" whether to do with the debt ceiling or race issues or inflation or whatever. Yet other youngsters were disgusted at the constant political back and forth ('us vs. them'), endless bickering,  to the extent they just want to "tune out" and stay home. 

None of these naive would-be voters grasps that their non-choices could lead to their lives being devastated a hundred times worse than they think, if Trump gets in again.  Truthfully, the weaponization of our history has impacted lots of these young voters, but that could be corrected if they read U.S. history - especially recent history at least from the Civil Rights era of the late 1950s. Do that instead of gravitating to social media and the politicos' "cringeworthy" stunts.   Drop the damn cell phones, then,, and either read an actual newspaper from the local newsstand or access a paper online, e.g.

There is also good evidence that large holes in one's knowledge of history translates into equally large holes in one's civics and political knowledge.  As Goldberg writes in his LA Times piece:

"Just 13% of eighth-graders were deemed “proficient” in history, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam sometimes called “America’s report card.” Only 22% were found to be proficient in civics knowledge as well."

And by a lack of this knowledge, we mean at the college level or above too. To the extent these young voters are unable to name their two state senators, their congressional representatives, or even the branches of the U.S. government. Hell, three -fourths can't name 5 of the rights listed under the Bill of Rights!  This is pathetic and a political disaster waiting to happen.  Indeed, Goldberg's next observation is even more disturbing:

"Some people don’t think it matters. They believe civics is unnecessary and history is just an ivory tower subject for pinheaded policy wonks and bespectacled academics. Surely what our kids need in high school and college, they say, are not abstract lessons in arcane facts, but skills that will put them on the path to jobs and productivity."

What can we make of this?  Well, consider Goldberg's own response with which I concur:

"I utterly and emphatically hope not. History matters, as does an understanding of our government and how it works."

Indeed, if we blissfully neglect history, then our respect for governance and democracy will be the next cards to fall - and then we end up with autocracy.  This was the tragic mistake the 'good' Germans made in the several 1932-33 elections that Hitler used to catapult himself into power as a dictator.  They had no appreciation, as our 89 year old German friend Marlies always tells us, because they believed Hitler was merely "another loud mouth". What was the big deal with just staying home as opposed to getting in the middle of the squabbles, i.e. between the "Reds" and Nazi brownshirts?   Well, the big deal is that the minority that was pro-Hitler ended up making the choice for the nation's destiny for her and others.  At that point, the productivity of 'x' men and women didn't matter given all were now under Nazi rule.

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