Recently the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “National Report Card,” revealed that American 8th grade students, long used as an educational benchmark, scored the lowest grades ever in history. Marks in math and reading were not much better, wiping out three decades of progress for young Americans. Just more damage inflicted by the pandemic, administrators of our educational institutions have been quick to rejoin, but their institutions were drifting toward mediocrity long before the disruptions caused by the lockdowns. The low performance across the board is a shame that must be borne by those who manage such institutions, but the poor showing in history reflects on the country as a whole. It is a gasping canary in our democracy’s coal mine.
Our historical illiteracy is not merely an educational shortfall, it is a harbinger of cultural collapse. Most of us have encountered in some form the glib response of younger generations to questions requiring a particular bit of what was once common knowledge: “why do I need to know that, when I can have the answer on my phone in seconds?” Math and certain other technical subjects may lend themselves to software shortcuts when answers are straightforward and absolute. One plus one, for example, will always equal two, despite the arguments of certain ideologues otherwise.
But history isn’t about such technical knowledge or absolute answers. History doesn’t just engage our brain, it touches our heart and spirit. History defines identities, defines the literal and figurative DNA unique to each individual human. You can’t summon your identity down from some satellite as if it were a piece of trivia. History is our anchor, and without it we are adrift. As Michael Crichton, prolific author of historical and other novels, warned, “if you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re just a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”
Yet in many of our institutions, history has been abandoned. Professors, and many of those falling under the ominous term “influencers,” try to negate our past by labeling it, just as they seek to cancel people who don’t conform to their ideologies. They seem to think they don’t have to engage with its complexities, its rich and rewarding challenges, if they can just label the past and toss it aside. But when they negate history, they negate themselves. What’s left of the human when we slam the door behind us? Empty vessels filled only with the daily feed of social media algorithms? Without the filters of history how will that audience learn the past’s well-taught lesson that such mob mentalities destroy the individual? George Orwell’s famous novel is evolving into a factual chronicle that could be retitled 2023.
Learning about our ancestors doesn’t simply explain the nature of our earlobes or color of our eyes. Understanding our ancestors explains why we exist at this particular place, in this particular time and context. Embracing history is how we embrace the tumultuous human journey on which we are all travelers. Recognizing that we are a link in a long uninterrupted chain of human struggle and triumph is essential to learning what it is to be human. My own life was vastly enriched, and my appetite for the past grew insatiable, when I discovered how my ancestors were driven out of Scotland by Cromwell, and found others who had fought at the battles of Verdun, Brooklyn, Crecy and Hastings.
Studying history is ultimately about learning to identify truth. In its most essential aspects what history gives us goes far beyond dates of battles or names of kings and queens. History provides the seeds of wisdom, which sprout only after such factual knowledge is assimilated. It is our transcendence across time. It is what Lincoln meant when he invoked the “mystical chords of memory” that link us to the terrible, miraculous flow of humanity.
Our democratic process cannot survive without those chords of memory. If our citizens deliberately ignore the fundamental rights upon which our nation was founded, the democratic dialogue that is its lifeblood will go silent. The freedoms that naysayers of history take as a birthright were given to them by the blood and tears of those who came before, and they can be lost if we don’t accept our debt to the past by nurturing those freedoms. Our history, from our original constitutional debate to its antecedents among philosophers and statesmen stretching from Britain to Rome and ancient Greece, is a remarkable tale that still offers profound lessons for how to conduct a democracy.
But who is listening to those lessons? Our elected officials score lower on history tests than the average citizen. Are we losing even the ability to pass down what it means to be American? Are we proving the words of the late historian David McCullough when he lamented that “young Americans are like a field of cut flowers,” withering because they have severed themselves from their roots? We will never know where we are going if we don’t know where we have been.
Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the acclaimed Bone Rattler series, set in the years leading to the American Revolution.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.