Arts & Culture

How Much Do You Know About American History?

With the YouTube series and podcast The Sons of History, Dustin Bass and Alan Wakim are on a mission to bring history to life
TIMEAugust 12, 2019

Dustin Bass had completed a journalism degree, only to be turned off completely from the industry—he did a 180 and started writing fiction instead. From there, a fateful turn of events led him to become a history podcast co-host.

“Fate, more or less, you can call it that, or the good Lord, sort of just brought Alan and me together,” Bass said, referring to Alan Wakim, co-host of the program Sons of History.

Bass had written a thriller noir for his first novel. After departing from his journalism career, he still kept tabs on current events and found himself delving into modern history to be able to explain why things happened the way they did, from the Recession to the political climate. His newfound interest in history led to an idea for a very different kind of novel to follow.

He was telling a talent-booking agent about his idea for a Korean War novel when she told him he had to meet her husband, a history buff who was carting new history books home every day. Bass and Wakim met, hit it off, and kept in touch. Later, both went on a trip to London and found out they’d missed each other by about an hour while touring famous historical sites.

“It’s like God wanted us to meet and become friends,” Wakim said.

Neither Bass nor Wakim has history-related professions, but their weekends, workout times, and much of any other downtime are dedicated to studying history, which they then turn into educational videos, interviews, podcasts, and articles.

It’s not just a hobby, it’s more of a mission; on the front page of the Sons of History website they list statistics that are rather dire.

Only 37 percent of high school students can recite one of the rights in the First Amendment, only 26 percent of high school students can name the three branches of government, and only 12 percent of high school students are considered “proficient” in American history.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

Several years ago, Wakim glanced at a Texas history textbook. He’d happened on the section about the Alamo, and found it written in a disturbing way.

All the heroes of the Alamo, who won independence for Texas, were listed, but “instead of highlighting the good things they did, what they did at the Alamo, what they instead talked about was that they owned slaves—that was what they concentrated on.”

Conversations from there kept confirming that what Wakim found in that one textbook wasn’t an anomaly. Young people he met knew about the negative aspects of events in history and talking points parroted in the media, but they didn’t seem to know about their importance or significance. They didn’t have the context to understand why the American experiment was unique.

Bass and Wakim added that their own history knowledge had little to do with what they were taught or assigned to read in school.

“[Students] are getting this minute detail on maybe the negatives or just something that’s hyper-focused on some small point of U.S. history, but they’re definitely not getting a lot of the ‘why,'” Bass said. “The most important thing is giving the whys for why things are taking place.”

Erasing the Past and Future

The implications of this loss of knowledge are striking.

“They don’t know the Bill of Rights, and if they don’t know the Bill of Rights, they’re not going to defend their rights,” Wakim said. “Right now, there’s a movement to eliminate the Electoral College. Well, they don’t understand why the Electoral College was created in the first place.”

“I think a lot of times people think that things just happened out of nowhere, there is no rhyme or reason for it is, just almost like ‘willy-nilly, this took place,'” Bass said.

People who don’t know their history might think that back in 1776, a bunch of smart guys came up with ideas that happen to have succeeded.

“That’s not it at all!” Bass said. “They studied the thinkers of their time, and before their time.”

The Founding Fathers had at their disposal the histories of Athens, Rome, London, and Jerusalem; they knew the persecution of minorities that could happen under a pure democracy, or empire, or nation with an established church. With the formation of a new nation, they took Western civilization in a deliberate direction, with protections against the ills of the past. And it wasn’t that things were easy once 56 signatures graced the Declaration of Independence—the majority of the signatories lost everything, and the new nation would contend to live up to its ideals every step of the way.

Bass cites the revolutionary ’60s, the post-modern ’20s, and even movements in the 1800s, when people who thought they knew better wanted to write the history and the future—always to destructive effect.

“People who wanted to come up with it on their own, they’ll rewrite mankind, they’ll rewrite nature, they’ll rewrite history and start anew, and that always leads to destruction. It leads to disaster, because you’re taking all of the lessons that people have learned over the past, however, many thousands of years, and shrug that aside, say, ‘We’ll start over,'” Bass said.

“You’re removing wisdom and knowledge and understanding, and then you have what happens in the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, and then Mao’s China,” Bass said.

Politicians, professors, and scientists intrigued by the chance to manipulate the course of events may rouse followers when they say, “Let’s just try something new.” Constituents who don’t understand history protest in the streets about something they don’t truly grasp.

“Society should never be treated as a guinea pig,” Bass said. “Typically, what takes place is devastating.”

A Positive Outlook

Wakim was in middle school and his family had just moved to an upper-middle-class community when the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 happened. He is of Lebanese origin, but everyone thought he was from Iran, and bullied him relentlessly about it.

“So I was getting beaten up every day,” he said. “And I mean every single day, people were picking fights with me.”

The worst of it was in PE class, Wakim said, so eventually, he snuck out while everyone filed into the locker rooms and hid in the one place no kid would willingly go: the history section of the library.

He started reading the children’s books on World War II, then expanded into the Korean War, Vietnam War, World War I, and then the rest of the section. High school turned out not to be much better, so he again spent periods hiding in the history section, where he read every book he could get his hands on.

“I did something positive out of negative,” Wakim said. “I didn’t want to be one of those people that was going to be traumatized for the rest of their lives over something like that; I wanted to make something positive happen. And I did.”

It’s why they put on costumes as the first presidents, wigs and all, to explain what happened in the American Revolution and offer entertaining, comedic explanations of the Declaration of Independence.

“We just want to educate, and we want to do it in an entertaining way,” Bass said.

Epoch Times Photo
Dustin Bass as George Washington. (Sons of History)
Epoch Times Photo
Alan Wakim as John Adams. (Sons of History)

“We want to explain to people that historical events going on now, and what led up to these historical events that are quite significant that do you have a bearing on people’s lives,” Wakim said.

Much of the material covers American history, but the two plan to branch out more into Western civilization and world history as they develop their programs, because all of it is related, and they are keenly aware of how different events and nations are interconnected. They’re interested in one day turning the programs into a television show, and making inroads in the education sector to help reverse the current disastrous trend.

Wakim goes on location to make videos sometimes, recently in New England to visit sites of famous battles and explain their significance.

“Lexington and Concord … where the shot heard around the world took place,” he says. “This is Fort Ticonderoga, which is so significant, and most people never even heard of it. They don’t know that Boston was under siege for 11 months.”

“When people visualize, they’re far more interested than if they just read it in the book,” Wakim said.

Bass said, “We’ve got to teach students about American history. They need to understand. If they end up not liking it, if they still end up maybe hating the country, OK, well at least they know exactly why they hate the country.”

“Even the ones that love the country, they need to know why they love the country,” Bass said. “History is a piece of the puzzle that’s important for everybody … math, science philosophy, everything relies on history, and history relies on them. And you can’t refute something if you know nothing about it.”