Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

We are refighting wars because we are failing to remember our history. "To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child" - Cicero

Red School Door - Image by - under CCO licenses at
Red School Door - Image by - under CCO licenses at

WASHINGTON,  July 11, 2016 – In an election year, candidates make promises for the future. How are voters to make sense of what they are told, and make intelligent judgments about the merits of what is being said if they have not been taught history?  To what can they compare the candidates who are seeking their votes, and how can they weigh the merits of the policies they propose?

The fact is that only 34 per cent of Americans even know that there are three branches to the federal government: executive, legislative and judicial. In the just published second edition of his book, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University, shows that one third of Americans think that foreign aid is the government’s largest expense and nearly half think that cap and trade has to do with healthcare or financial regulation instead of the environment.

Dr. Somin argues that,

“If voters are poorly informed about government policy, they will often make poor decisions. They often support counterproductive or contradictory policies.  For example, most voters greatly overestimate the percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid (about 1 per cent) while massively underestimating the amount spent on big entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security. As a result, they believe we can solve our fiscal problems without ever cutting entitlements or raising taxes on the vast majority of Americans. That delusion makes it very hard to do budget policy in a rational way.”

Sadly we have largely abandoned the teaching of our history. This is not only true in our elementary, middle and high schools where the amorphous “social studies” has replaced history, but in our colleges and universities as well.

American politics 2016: Turning fine wine into sewage

A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group which advocates for accountability at schools, found that just 23 of the institutions among the 76 deemed to be the “best” by U.S. News and World Report’s 2016 rankings, require history majors to take at least one U.S. History course.

Many elite schools, including Rice University and Johns Hopkins University, may require students to take courses about events from before 1750, or on East Asian and sub-Saharan African politics, without also demanding that they study the creation of the U.S. Constitution or the civil rights movement.

The report declares that the absence of mandates that history majors take U.S. History classes with chronological and thematic breadth:

“…is a truly breathtaking abandonment of intellectual standards and professional judgment…A democratic republic cannot thrive without well-informed citizens and leaders . Elite colleges and universities let the nation down when the examples they set devalue the study of U.S. history.”

Harvard University does not require history majors to take a single course in U.S. history. Neither do Georgetown, Duke, Yale, Dartmouth and many others.

The Council said that many courses tagged as U.S. history still leave students short of a thorough understanding of the country’s past. University of Pennsylvania students who pursue an American history concentration within the major can take classes including “Baseball in U.S. History,” while those at the University of Texas at Austin can partially fulfill their American history requirement by signing up for “Jews in American Entertainment.”

“Niche classes are not going to prepare students for engaged citizenship,” said Dr. Michael Poliakoff, president-elect of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, adding that requiring students to take courses on broad slices of American history is a “question of academic responsibility.”

From kindergarten to graduate school, the teaching of American history is in decline. In a recent exam conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it was found that students were less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject.

2016 Presidential campaign: The politics America deserves?

Most fourth graders were unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was an important figure, and few high school seniors were able to identify China as the North Korea ally that fought American troops during the Civil War.

Overall, 20 per cent of fourth graders, 17 per cent of eighth graders and 12 per cent of high school seniors demonstrated proficiency on the exam. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could answer what was described as a “seemingly easy question,” asking them to identify an important advantage American forces had over the British during the Revolution, the government’s statement on the results said.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who was invited by the national assessment’s governing board to review the results, said she was particularly disturbed by the fact that only 2 per cent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education, which she called “very likely the most important decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven decades.”

Students were given an excerpt including the passage,

“We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

They were asked what social problem the 1954 ruling was supposed to correct.  “The answer was right in front of them,” Ms. Ravitch said. “This is alarming.”

Then Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared:

“The results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education.”

The evidence of our failure to teach our history is abundant. Fewer than half of American eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights on a recent national civics examination, and only one in ten demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana

“These results confirm that we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education,” said Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court justice who founded, a nonprofit group that teaches students civics through web-based games and other tools.

“The results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline,” said Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education. “During the past decade or so, educational policy and practice appear to have focused more and more upon developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.”

In Justice O’Connor’s view,

“We face difficult challenges at home and abroad. Meanwhile, divisive rhetoric and a culture of sound bites threaten to drown out rational dialogue and debate. We cannot afford to continue to neglect the preparation of future generations for active and informed citizenship.”

Historian David McCullough says that,

“We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate. I know how much most of these young people, even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning, don’t know. It’s shocking.”

McCullough, who has lectured on more than 100 college campuses, tells of a young woman who came up to him after a lecture at a respected university in the Midwest.

“Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast,” she said.

One reason for students’ poor showing on recent tests underlines the neglect shown to the study of history by state and federal policy makers, both Republicans and Democrats, especially since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act began requiring schools to raise scores in math and reading, but in no other subject.

Eliminating America’s historical significance from education

This federal accountability law, surprisingly embraced by Republicans who previously argued that education was a state and local, not a federal matter, has given schools and teachers an incentive to spend most of their time teaching to the math and reading tests, and totally ignoring history.

Historian Paul Johnson points out that,

“The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”

For democracy to work, an educated citizenry was viewed as essential by the Founding Fathers. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson declared that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

In a letter to William Jarvis in 1820, Jefferson noted that,

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to improve their discretion.”

One reason the political rhetoric of our present presidential campaign seems so divisive and devoid of a serious consideration of the issues we confront, may be that the average voter, whose own knowledge of history and government appears weaker than that of voters in the past, does not demand anything more.

If this is the case, it may indeed be true that this is the politics we deserve. Those who have presided over an educational system which no longer believes that teaching our history is important bear much of the responsibility.

Free societies are rare.  If their history and values are not transmitted to the next generation, their survival is questionable. As Cicero (106-43 B.C.) understood:

 “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you were born is to remain a child. What is human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context?”


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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.