Forgetting the Past

By Kara Miller


Earlier this month, the Marist Poll reported some disturbing – and, now, much-cited – findings. After questioning more than 1,000 adults, Marist discovered that 26% of U.S. residents don’t know what country we gained our independence from.

Some of those polled thought the U.S. may have broken free from France. Some thought Spain – or perhaps China or Japan. Most of the 26%, though, simply demurred. They did know what country the U.S. separated from in 1776.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked by the poll. But I can’t help it – I was. Then, to make things worse, I started to investigate the poll’s internal numbers.Of those 45 and older, 78% correctly answered Great Britain. Not great, but a solid C+. Of those under 45, only 67% knew the U.S. had separated from Great Britain. And the worst offenders in the under-45 group were aged 18 to 29, only 60% of whom responded correctly.

At first, this perplexed me. Those who just finished high school, college, and graduate school should be most attuned to this sort of text-book, history-class question. It wasn’t that long ago they were performing in Thanksgiving pageants, questioning the sanity of George III, and discussing why America’s founders wanted a president instead of a King.

So what happened to the 18 to 29 crowd? Why were they shaky on basic, third-grade social studies material? Either young people have memories vastly inferior to their elders – which I doubt – or they never truly learned much history in the first place.

Indeed, over the last few years, we have seen a general move away from the humanities and towards a more pre-professional mindset. In 1970, according to the magazine The American Scholar, nearly 20% of college students majored in history; by 2003, that number had dropped to about 10%. Business majors, meanwhile, nearly doubled, from 13% to 21%.

The study of information that is not immediately applicable to the boardroom, the showroom, the operating room, and the courtroom has declined. Literature and history are consigned to an increasingly smaller and smaller chunk of our national consciousness. Perhaps there are upsides to this trend, but there are tremendous dangers as well: the danger that we will forget who we are, how we got here, and how great ideas – like the one that gave birth to America – can change the world.

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