Don’t Know Much About History

September 27, 2022 Updated: September 28, 2022

Commentary

In 1960, the late Sam Cooke released the song “Wonderful World,” which contains the lyrics, “Don’t know much about history.”

Sadly, seven decades later, his lament about his lack of historical (or any other educational) knowledge from his school days (as he was focused on a young lady instead) has become a sort of anthem for the state of U.S. civic knowledge. And that lack of knowledge has real-life implications for us all.

A few weeks back, on Constitution Day, the Annenberg Public Policy Center released a new survey documenting our nation’s historical and civic ignorance. The survey found that less than half (47 percent) of respondents could name the three branches of government, and one-fourth couldn’t even name one. Asked to name the five rights protected by the First Amendment, fewer Americans could name any of the five than in 2021. For instance, fewer than one in four people (24 percent) could name freedom of religion, down from 56 percent the prior year.

This woeful decline isn’t new; it’s just getting worse. It has sadly become evident over the past seven decades that Americans have become increasingly ignorant of our nation’s founding principles. In my new book, “Toward a More Perfect Union,” to be released early next year, I document some of the most distressing findings and how they’re negatively affecting our nation.

Across our nation, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how government works, what powers it rightly has, and how it can justly use those powers. Whole generations have grown up without understanding basic economics, mistrusting the motives of our nation’s Founding Fathers, and spurning and vilifying those who made immense sacrifices to create and then preserve our constitutional republic.

There’s also a direct tie between our civic and historical ignorance and how we treat each other as human beings. It isn’t a coincidence that the coarsening of our national discourse began when we removed civics, religion, and history from our education system. Soon after, we began to teach distorted forms of each, and the sickness in our discourse metastasized.

A vast number of our fellow Americans not only despise the foundational values of our culture, but they even despise the idea of extending basic civility toward others, regardless of their views. This ignorance and disdain play themselves out in all aspects of our culture—whether it be mob attacks on statues and monuments; younger generations’ embrace of socialism; widespread disrespect of parents by both children and the government; disparagement of religion, law enforcement, and the military; or venomous rhetoric spewed at our fellow citizens as is often seen in social media comments when people mock the beliefs, heritage, and ideas of others in the most disparaging terms. It’s also demonstrated daily on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and other media outlets.

It isn’t just conservatives who are raising the alarm. William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

“Consider the formative experiences of adults 30 and younger. For them, the Cold War exists only in history books—which they didn’t necessarily read. High schools in only 31 states require a yearlong U.S. history course. … Against this backdrop, it isn’t hard to understand why only 15% of those under 30 think the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth, why nearly half believe hard work is no guarantor of success, or why so many of them support a single national health care program.”

While one may ask, “Does it really affect someone’s day-to-day life if he or she knows whether Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb?” the truth is, ignorance of history—including historical details—is isolating. When we don’t know the stories behind the things that make up our daily lives—things as disparate and dear to our society as light bulbs, the American flag, the interstate highway system, and freedom of speech and association—we forget what labor and effort those things cost our forebears. We don’t value them. And when we cease to value things, we stand to lose them.

As President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1953 inaugural address, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

That’s exactly what’s happening in the United States; we’re in danger of losing our privileges because we’ve become ignorant of, or in some cases, disdainful of our principles. It’s my hope and prayer that we stem this tide—through returning to not only teaching history and civics in our public and private schools but also history and civics that accurately portray our story, both the good and the bad—so our children will once again know not only our history but also how our government works. That will enable them to make good decisions rather than bad ones, which will affect our nation’s future.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president of government and external relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, DC, and co-author of "American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation."