Burnett: Why Americans are becoming history illiterate
It was 1862 in war-weary Washington.
The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order to free all slaves in areas still in rebellion, was not yet in effect. The U.S. had suffered what remains the bloodiest day in American military history — the Battle of Antietam. And from the United States Capitol, the secretary of the Senate read aloud President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress.
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. ... The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation.”
Abraham Lincoln, whose wisdom belongs to the ages, was sadly wrong on this point.
A study released on the 150th anniversary of the tragic night John Wilkes Booth slipped into Ford’s Theater and shot President Lincoln revealed another tragedy: Lincoln — and much of his legacy — is being lost to the ages. Today, half of the American public doesn’t know when the Civil War took place.
One in 5 Americans failed to identify John Wilkes Booth as Lincoln’s assassin and 1 in 3 could not identify Lincoln as a leader of the Union Army, in a multiple choice survey. Just 18 percent knew the effect of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And when asked to identify Lincoln’s words, more respondents chose a passage from the Declaration of Independence than Lincoln’s famous phrase from the Gettysburg Address “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
College graduates, too, struggled with the survey. More than a third of graduates didn’t know when the Civil War took place and only 28 percent knew the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. Less than 40 percent correctly identified the phrase from the Gettysburg Address as Lincoln’s.
Today, not even 1 in 5 colleges requires students to take a single course in American history or government, according to the “What Will They Learn?” study. Here in Michigan, only three of 28 colleges in the study require the course.
At Oakland University, American history can be swapped with “Foundations of Rock,” “Dance in American Culture” or “Human Sexuality.”
At the University of California-Berkeley, the requirement can be replaced with “Dutch Culture and Society: Amsterdam, and Berkeley in the Sixties.”
And at the University of Colorado, American history can be replaced with “America through Baseball,” “Horror Films in American Culture” or even “Wops and Dons to Movers and Shakers: The Italian-American Experience.”
Niche classes on sex, zombies and musical artists should never be substituted for the basics of our history and system of government. We’re trading Lincoln for Lady Gaga; World War I for One Direction.
Employers are noticing. Fully 80 percent of employers believe all college students, regardless of major, should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
The American people and boards of trustees must demand that students graduate from college with knowledge of our past. It’s not easy to change the curricula of hundreds of institutions, but once again we should look to the Great Emancipator.
“It is not ‘Can any of us imagine better?’ but ‘Can we all do better?’ … The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Let’s hope Lincoln was right this time.
Daniel Burnett is the director of communications at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.