The Cost of Historical Amnesia in America

When sizable portions of a people forget their history, they risk losing contact with their nation’s essence, what its best qualities are, and where it ought to be headed.  They may soon cease to inhabit an independent political entity.

There’s evidence that a loss of historical memory is a growing problem in America.  Furthermore, political developments suggest there will be even more problems involving the loss of knowledge about essential American history in the future.

One indication that we already face problems with loss of historical memory comes from a YouGov poll, commissioned by the recently established The Victims of Communism Foundation.  The foundation publishes an “Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes towards Socialism.”  The first such report appeared on Monday, October 16, 2016. 

Jamie Gregora wrote about that report in the October 17 issue of The Daily Signal.  Most of that report deals the youngest birth cohort in the American electorate, i.e., the Millennials, or those aged 34 and younger.

Perhaps the most surprising example, but not the only one, of Millennials’ lack of historical memory is the finding that 32% of them believe that George W. Bush killed more people than Josef Stalin.  (If one believes “Bush = Hitler,” perhaps that’s not too surprising.)

Three more examples of Millennials’ historical ignorance will suffice.  According to the report, 42% of Millennials “were unfamiliar with” Mao Zedong, 40% claimed not to know who Che Guevara was, and 33% drew a blank when asked about Vladimir Lenin. 

Ignorance has consequences.  Twenty-five percent of the Millennials, for example, viewed Lenin favorably.  Although 57% of Americans overall held unfavorable views of communism, only 37% of Millennials were similarly disposed.  Moreover, 55% of Millennials said communism was a problem in the world today, compared with 80% of Baby Boomers, and 91% of the oldest birth cohort.  Worse, perhaps, although 65% of Americans aged 65 and older held favorable views of capitalism, only 42% of Millennials had favorable views of capitalism.

Finally, and this may be most shocking, 45% of people aged 16-20 – who will soon enter the electorate – said they would vote for a socialist, and 21% would cast a ballot for a communist.  (Maybe now we know why so many young people swooned over Bernie Sanders this year.)

As Nicole Russell concluded from the report in The, “these numbers show a generation sadly misinformed about the historical and present reality of life under communism and socialism.”

Readers of American Thinker may believe that what that report reveals is the consequence of America’s public education system, in which left-wing teachers and textbook authors systematically denude students of critical information about their country’s and the world’s history.  No argument there, but a portion of the blame for young people’s lack of historical knowledge seeps down on their parents, and even the young themselves.  (Am I blaming the victim?  Perhaps, but if the shoe fits ….)

Fairness dictates that we acknowledge that young Americans’ lack of historical knowledge probably goes back some way.  In the early 1980s, for example, the polymath Ben Stein wrote an article in the now defunct journal Public Opinion that detailed a critical lack of knowledge among California “Valley Girls,” especially ignorance of Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and anti-Semitism.  When informed of Hitler’s campaign against European Jewry, and especially the Holocaust, one young woman gasped, “Why would he do that?”

As astonishing as these examples, which could easily be multiplied, are, recent developments in the U.S., especially those surrounding the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the South between the end of Reconstruction (1877) and the mid-1960s probably portend worse historical amnesia yet to come.

By now, we ought to be familiar with the Left’s longstanding campaign to use slavery as a cudgel to browbeat ordinary people into silence while left-wing types seek to fundamentally transform the U.S.  One facet of left-wingers’ campaign has been to cover-up, and if possible, to erase, some aspects of the “South’s peculiar institution,” such as the fact that some slaves were owned by African Americans, or that some blacks served in Confederate armies between 1861 and 1865, while trumpeting other facets, such as the claim that slavery is America’s “original sin,” or that all whites bear the guilt associated with slavery, or that Abraham Lincoln was a racist.

Ever since the horrendous, racially motivated, massacre in Charleston, SC in 2015, the campaign to eliminate as much of the South’s symbols and (former) traditions as possible has shifted into high gear.  From simply removing the stars-and-bars flag – which was not the original, official, flag of the Confederacy – from a Confederate memorial in South Carolina’s state capital, to removing statues and busts of key Southern figures from prominent locations, to changing the names of public schools from important Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee, to less offensive – to some – monikers, the U.S. has experienced what some regard as an orgy of historical amnesia.

There are already state-sanctioned public school history textbooks in which major Confederate leaders – again, Robert E. Lee comes to mind – receive far briefer treatment than, say Sojourner Truth or Rosa Parks.  Will future public school children be innocent of any knowledge that the U.S. endured a four-year long Civil War, in which at least 650,000 people died?  Could it be that public school children in the future will not learn that America may be the only country to tear itself apart to rid itself of what virtually everyone these days regards as anathema?

One does not have to approve of either slavery or the Confederacy to appreciate that they are an ineradicable part of America’s past, and must be remembered.

Where will the quest for feeling good about American history end?   Will we soon try to forget that Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order sending 110,000-120,000 people of Japanese descent to what were euphemistically called internment camps?  Will we soon forget that key Progressives, such as Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, were prejudiced against some minorities?  Will we fail to remember that Margaret Sanger – now regarded as virtually a saint in some quarters – advocated euthanizing people – perhaps entire races – regarded as inferior?

Oops!  Sorry!  We’re already into attempts to cleanse Americans’ memories of certain historical personalities, such as TR, Wilson, and especially Sanger.

Some people want to feel good about themselves and their country, and if that means selectively forgetting some facets of U.S. history, so be it.

But, that has consequences.

For one thing, what if future generations don’t share our values?  Twenty-first century Americans don’t think like earlier generations did, and future inhabitants of the U.S. may not think as we do now.  What if, in the effort to feel good about ourselves, we deny important information future Americans will need as they try coping with thorny questions?

It gets worse.  If history teaches anything, it is not just that those who won’t learn about the past will have to repeat it.  It is, as Ben Stein warned, that those who know nothing, or very little, of the past, won’t know what’s worth preserving.

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