SINCE 1759

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The Long Reach of Ignorance
Imperial Illiteracy

Quick, where's the Sunni Triangle?

Jay Leno may think his cruel if revealing street interviews of how little Americans know about their history is trademark Tonight Show stuff. Geography teachers may agonize over the fact that despite four years of war, 63 percent of Americans can’t find Iraq or Saudi Arabia on a map, 75 percent can’t find Israel or Iran, and 88 percent can’t find Afghanistan, graveyard to 381 American soldiers since 2001. But ignorance is an old American tradition that makes you wonder how the nation got to be so powerful and unrivaled — or whether knowledge is, all told, overrated.

In 1943, the New York Times asked the chairman of the Committee on American History and a professor of American History at Columbia University to prepare a basic questionnaire “dealing with important phases of our history in economic, political, cultural or social fields.” The questionnaire went to thousands of college freshmen across the country, 7,000 of whom responded. “An analysis of the results,” Benjamin Fine, the Times reporter who would win a Pulitzer for the piece, wrote, “indicates that either the college freshmen, recently out of high school, were poorly prepared on the secondary level, or they had forgotten whatever they had learned about United States history.” Example: 25 percent didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War. (The questionnaire apparently didn’t ask whether students were aware that there had been a civil war. Chances are that 50 percent of the students would have been startled to know that there’d been one, the discrepancy with the 25 percent figure about Lincoln’s war-time presidency explaining a lot about math illiteracy, too.) Other men listed as having been president during the Civil War: Wilson, Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Hoover (Hoover, who was president when all these students were in elementary school), Jackson or Harding. In the South, where indolence used to be ignorance’s favorite rhyme, “Well over 150 college freshmen listed [Jefferson] Davis as having been president” during the Civil War. Today, the figure would be double or triple that, as Southern “heritage” has turned the corner on fact, giving fantasy preferred treatment.

“Evidently,” a sardonic Fine wrote, “the McKinley Administration during the Spanish-American War has left little impression upon our students. A little over 1,000 of the 7,000 who answered knew that McKinley had been president,” while 2,077 students, or 30 percent, “did not know that Woodrow Wilson had been president of the United States during the last World War.” What’s startling in these two cases is that 1,000 students had even heard of McKinley: that’s 1,000 more than any survey would find today. Most students wouldn’t even know that the highest peak in the nation is named after that first among imperial presidents, nor that the current imperial one models himself, in part, on McKinley’s version of globalism with a stick: On Oct. 7, 2001, when Bush delivered the televised address to the nation on attacking Afghanistan, Karl Rove made sure that it would be delivered from the White House Treaty Room on the second floor, so named for treaty McKinley signed to end the Spanish-American War in 1898. McKinley’s portrait supervising the signing of the treaty hangs there.

Would the surveyed students of 1943 have known what a treaty is? The men most listed as having been president during the First World War, the Times found, were—again—among others, Hoover and, amazingly, Franklin Roosevelt. Students must have been thinking that if FDR was good enough for the Second one, he must have been good enough for the First. Alf Landon and Abraham Lincoln, by the way, were also listed as World War I presidents.

Those kids, ladies and gentlemen, are today referred to as the “Greatest Generation.”

It got worse when the survey asked students to identify a couple of contributions made by the likes of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. “More than 100 students said that Lincoln had caused the Civil War” (actually, not an entirely inaccurate interpretation), and also that he was the first president of the United States, that he created a fasting day, and that he was especially famous for having “emaciated the slaves.” Again, not an entirely inaccurate statement, considering the shame of Reconstruction and what would follow. Jefferson, on the other hand, was the founder of the Salvation Army and the Saturday Evening Post and, because it obviously bears his name, the originator of the Monroe Doctrine. (Quick, can anyone recall what that little bit of imperial assumption was all about?)

In 1943, FDR had been president virtually the entire cognitive life of these students, god love ‘em, and cousin Theodore had been dead 24 years. Here’s what the students had to say about Teddy: “One student wrote that Roosevelt was famous in American life because ‘he showed that an invalid is not lost.’ Another said that he ‘walked on a big stick with a soft voice.’ Again, he was a forest ranger, head of a troop of Negores who helped free Texas, established price ceilings, was a hero in the War of 1812, fought Pancho Villa, helped quiet the Indians.” Was a general and a president during World War I, “purchased Alaska, saved the country from depression, and was the first New Dealer.” My guess is that a few hundred of the students who gave those answers retired to Florida and voted for Pat Buchanan, thinking they were voting for Al Gore, in 2000. Like I said: Greatest Generation.

The survey goes on to detail what the students thought of the Constitution and such things as giving Negroes the power of “empeachment.” It would be depressing to go on, because by the time geography questions were answered, Oregon, Utah, Tennessee, Illinois and Nebraska were eastern-seaboard states and Florida was somewhere north of Texas and Utah, the Philippines and Iceland were American states, Alaska was bought from the Dutch (a few students must’ve heard about Dutch Harbor), and Kentucky was bought from France.

Which brings us back to those numbers at the beginning of this piece—findings from the 2006 National Geographic poll on geographic literacy. This was a poll of 18-to-24 year-olds. Young adults. Products of the nation’s schools and universities. Proud heirs descendants of the Greatest Generation, too: 70 percent don’t know where North Korea is, 33 percent don’t know their north from their south, and 34 percent would go in the wrong direction in the event of an evacuation (which makes you think, cruelly enough: good riddance. But no… who would then answer the next survey’s questions so insanely?) This, too, gets worse: 21 percent of these adults say it’s “not important” to know where countries in the news happen to be on the map (what difference if it’s Canada or Rwanda?) and, not surprisingly, 38 percent consider speaking another language “not important.” I would have been curious to know what percentage consider speaing another language to be beneath them.

It’s irrelevant whether people in other countries know more or less than Americans do (generally speaking, it’s a safe bet that, by necessity, they know more: so it is with victims of ignorance’s reach). What matters is that the most powerful nation on earth, the richest, the most environmentally and politically destructive at the moment, is geographically and historically illiterate. The world’s leadership is flying blind, and is proud of it: Americans are self-satisfied, feeling no urgency to know any different, let alone to know more. Empires have lost their way on much less. This one, barely a century old (if McKinley is the starting marker) may at this rate yet prove to be history’s briefest of all.

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