"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
— Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B. C.), Roman statesman and orator
It is safe to say the president is not known to be a scholar or even a voracious reader. So it was understandable that some recent comments by President Donald Trump were highlighted by historical fact-checkers in the news media.
In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, Trump suggested that President Andrew Jackson was angry about America's drift toward civil war — though "Old Hickory" died in 1845 and the War Between the States began 16 years later. Trump later tweeted he was aware of the lapse in time, though this was not particularly persuasive in itself.
This episode put me in mind of former Vice President Joe Biden, who, among his many celebrated gaffes, once made a remark about Franklin D. Roosevelt "getting on the television" soon after the 1929 stock market crash, when Herbert Hoover was president. Certainly, Trump has not cornered the market on historical confusion. But evidence appears to show Trump and Biden are not alone.
Indeed, surveys conducted in the past couple of decades suggest that Americans in general are historically challenged. A study conducted by GfK Custom Research found that 39 percent of Americans were unaware that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II, and that 59 percent did not know Theodore Roosevelt played a role in the construction of the Panama Canal.
The same study found that only 18 percent of U.S. colleges and universities required students to take a course in American history or government.[JB emphasis] This latter factoid would not be as much of an indictment if the students had previously gained sufficient knowledge of history in junior high and high school. But this does not appear to be the case.
An earlier survey, released by the American Council for Trustees and Alumni in 2000, questioned students from 55 top-tier American colleges and universities. It found, for instance, that only 23 percent of the students tested knew James Madison was "the father of the Constitution."
On the other hand, 99 percent of this group knew who Beavis and Butthead were. There has not been much evidence of appreciable improvement since that time. Survey courses in Western civilization have become an endangered species.
But it is not merely a lack of knowing names and dates that is a problem. If we are given a simplistic, ideological approach to history and the rich human context and complexity is ignored, our understanding can be impoverished. This can be illustrated in part through what has been taking place regarding Confederate monuments.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans recently declared four of these monuments to be "public nuisances" and initiated a process to remove them. Among those was a monument to General Robert E. Lee. It should be understood that for generations after the Civil War, people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line revered General Lee. He had hoped for the gradual abolition of slavery and freed the slaves his family had inherited. He had been offered leadership of the Union armies but ultimately turned it down because his primary loyalty was to his native Virginia and its people. At the end of the war, Lee was gracious in accepting defeat and urged reconciliation. His reputation as a Christian gentleman was well-deserved.
But this historical background means little to those who, like Mayor Landrieu, insist upon a kind of erasure of history. It reminds one of those who would white-out evidence of FDR's cigarette holder or Churchill's cigar in old photos in order not to offend non-smokers. But in a sense it is worse, because these "social justice warriors" fail to make necessary distinctions. So all who fought for the South are deemed to be comic-book villains and they are forced into the same Procrustean bed.
George Santayana famously remarked that those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it. That is especially true for those who make no effort to understand it to begin with.
— Jeff McAlister, a Longview resident, is a regular contributor to the Saturday Forum.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.