“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know much of anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” - Michael Crichton
“Don’t know much about history,” are the words of a popular song, words that are apropos to our era: Study after study shows Americans’ knowledge of our own past, let alone that of the world, is getting dimmer year by year.
Only six in 10 Americans know who the U.S. fought in World War II. Less than one-fourth know why the colonists fought the British in the Revolutionary War. Only 13% know when the Constitution was ratified. A mere 12% of U.S. high school students are “proficient” in history.
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In my classes at Allan Hancock College I frequently interweave history with critical thinking lessons. Students’ knowledge of history here is as scant as it is elsewhere. (No offense meant to local history teachers; I’m sure they are doing their best). But to my pleasant surprise, the students not only enjoy the history they learn but are eager to find out more.
“One thing I will take with me from this class is that you should always have some knowledge of history because you may need it for the future,” a student wrote recently. Another said, “I learned how important it is not to let history repeat itself.”
“We have to learn from the past so we won’t make the same mistakes again,” said a third student.
Students realize there are dangers in not knowing history, the most obvious being that it can be repeated.
To support this point, I give as an example the 2013 comments by a reality TV star who asserted that as a boy growing up in the segregated South he felt African-Americans were happy with their second-class status. “No one was singing the blues,” he said. They never complained.
Evidently he never heard of Emmet Till, the 14 year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. A rigid code of conduct was imposed on black people in the South, and to violate it was to invite violence and murder. Someone without an awareness of the past, hearing ignorant statements like that, might conclude that the Jim Crow era wasn’t so bad, and not understand the necessity for civil rights laws.
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Not only is knowledge of history in general declining, awareness of history’s greatest crime, the Nazi Holocaust, is decreasing as well. In 2018 a study found that 41% of Americans overall, and 66% of Millennials, do not know what Auschwitz was. One-third of Americans think 2 million died in the Holocaust; the actual number is 6 million. This is taking place as the number of Holocaust deniers is growing.
We live in an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” when “truth isn’t always truth” and a free press is “the enemy of the people.” In a time when the President of the U.S. has been caught in 10,726 provable lies, knowing the truth is more important than ever. If you can get someone to believe that the most documented genocide in the history of the human race isn’t true, then what can you not get them to believe?
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” said Thomas Jefferson, “it expects what never was and never will be.”
“I learned how important it is to know history,” said a student at the end of the last semester. He went on to say he intends to pass this awareness on to his children. You can’t ask for more than that.