Reaping the Ignorance We Have Sown

Having a historical sense is essential to bring civilization and order from the chaos of our perceptions and passions.
Reaping the Ignorance We Have Sown
Students at University of California–Irvine protest against the Israel-Hamas conflict in Irvine, Calif., on May 2, 2024. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Timothy S. Goeglein

As I, along with millions of other Americans, have viewed with dismay the recent anti-Semitic protests at universities across our land, the question often asked by those who remember the past is, “Don’t these students know anything about history?”

Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer is no. That is why I wrote my book “Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Cases for Teaching the Great American Story,” to warn about the consequences of the lack of America’s historical and civic nation.
In his 1989 farewell address to the nation, President Ronald Reagan also prophetically warned us about the consequences of neglecting the teaching of history. He said, “If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit.”

It was that spirit that led millions to fight against the evils of Nazi Germany and its extermination of more than 6 million Jews—leading to the liberation of the concentration camps, less than a century ago. That spirit has been lost as the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those who fought for freedom are now calling for the persecution of those whom their ancestors valiantly fought to liberate.

But as George Santayana wrote in “The Life of Reason,” “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And on university campuses across our land, history is being repeated by those who don’t know it.

What Santayana and President Reagan both understood is that having a historical sense—a grounding in what has come before—is essential, both on an individual level and on a societal level, to bring civilization and order from the chaos of our perceptions and passions. If we have no historical sense, we are swept along by events and dominated by our reactions to those events.

Study after study has shown how woefully ignorant current generations are of history. For instance, a 2015 report done by the Newseum Institute found that 43 percent of American adults did not know that the First Amendment gave them freedom of speech, and a full third could not identify any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
This is, sadly, not surprising, because the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that in a survey of more than 1,000 liberal arts colleges, only 18 percent included a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirement.

Thus, those without this knowledge cannot view events in context; they cannot balance their perceptions with awareness of what may be happening beyond their perceptions. And, as a result, they get caught in the same vicious cycles that have brought down civilizations for the past thousand years.

And if history is taught at all, rather than being taught historical facts, students are told to “interpret it.” These interpretations have no basis in fact but in the viewpoint of the interpreter. In fact, how can one “interpret” something one has little or no knowledge of to begin with?

Therefore, when there is no historical context to draw upon, people are not equipped to refute an argument, and lacking critical thinking skills to see beyond the rhetoric, they become easy prey for demagogues to be exploited to advance certain agendas. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of teaching civics and history at all levels of our educational system, radical activists are using that space to indoctrinate our children into their dangerous worldviews.

The latest worldview is that Israel is evil and needs to be destroyed, and the demagogues, right on cue, have preyed upon the ignorance of these university students who have no knowledge of the past to achieve their aims.

What is scary is that the very arguments being made on university campuses are eerily similar to the ones made in Germany back in the 1930s, which led to one of the worst human tragedies in history—a tragedy that these students seemingly either have no knowledge of or context to understand.

And this is also why our nation has increasingly become a house divided against itself, a house that Abraham Lincoln, quoting Jesus Christ, warned us “cannot stand.”
Jarrett Stepman of The Heritage Foundation put it best when he wrote, “We don’t want to be trapped by the past, but we do want to learn from it in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and build a better future.”

Unfortunately, we are reaping the ignorance we have sown by either ignoring history or “reinterpreting” it into something it never was. What is happening on our university campuses is only the latest symptom of a greater problem. The same is true of current civil discourse. Let’s take action now and teach true and detailed history before that problem becomes another human tragedy. We don’t have a minute to lose.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Timothy S. Goeglein is vice president of external and government relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, D.C., and author of the 2023 book “Toward a More Perfect Union: The Cultural and Moral Case for Teaching the Great American Story.”