Wednesday, June 15, 2011


June 15, 2011:

Today's New York Times reports that "American students are less proficient in their nation's history than in any other subject." Proficiency declines, furthermore, as students reach high school; in fourth grade 20 percent are proficient, in middle school 17 percent are, while only 12 percent of high school seniors are. And Sarah Palin thinks that Paul Revere rode to warn the British that the Americans were coming, while her followers tried to change the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to support her ignorance of what actually happened.

OK, I'm a historian. It's predictable that I would find this, of all the items in today's news, by far the most alarming. But I just finished writing a piece for a history magazine about the two wars the United States fought in the early 1800s against the Barbary regencies in North Africa, which had been engaging in systematic, wholesale piracy against European shipping in the Mediterranean and the eastern Atlantic since the sixteenth century. The United States, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, who hated the system of legalized bribery by which the European powers paid these regencies not to attack their shipping, was the first commercial nation to decide to wage war against them instead of paying tribute to them, thereby setting a precedent for American foreign policy that remains in force to this day.

Is it useful to know this? I would argue that for American diplomats and American leaders, the people who have to deal with the wider world on a daily basis, it is essential. The context of events is what gives them their meaning, what saves them from seeming random and chaotic and beyond our grasp. History IS context. To handle a negotiation with Libya, say--the first of these two wars was fought with Tripoli, now the capital of Libya--and not to know the context, the background, the continuity of U. S. relations with the country, would be stupid in the extreme. I'm confident that Obama knows that history and that context pretty well, and so does the State Department. But does Sarah Palin?

You cannot become a citizen of the United States without knowing its history. You have to pass a test in it. I would guess that most newly minted citizens know far more of it than most high school graduates. If you know history, so much that seems irrational about American atitudes begins, if not to make sense, at least to have context. You would know, for example, that the American opposition to, indeed hatred for, taxes is as old as the American Revolution, that Thomas Jefferson shared that antipathy, and that he had to go against his own ideological disposition to build the navy that defeated the Barbary pirates. He had to change his mind. Jefferson made a point of knowing history. When he was serving as American minister to France in the 1780s he built the largest collection in the country of rare books relating to America and its history. He had a copy of the Koran in his library as well, and read it. He read the classical historians in their original languages, Greek and Latin.

George Bush couldn't locate Afghanistan on a map when he took office. Sarah Palin knew all about Russia because she could see it from her kitchen window.

If you don't know history, the world that surrounds you is largely a mystery, and you will wind up believing all sorts of things about it that simply aren't true. You will live in the myth/world inside your head: that everybody in the world wants what we want. That we are an essentially peace-loving people. That our enterprise is "free." That the playing field is level. That we are not racists. That America provides more opportunity than anywhere else.

All of these statements are demonstrably false, and have been from the beginning of American history. It's not that America is a bad country; it's that America is like most of the rest of the world, the product of a highly contentious, complicated, contradictory past, full of strife, laced here and there by brief periods of relative calm. Once you understand this, you can shed your illusions and begin to deal with America as it really is. The study of American history is obviously essential to this process. History is one source of prudence, forethought, tolerance and wisdom. Without it we doom ourselves to ignorance, to ever more strident ideological conflict, and to cultural and economic decline, all of it fed by myths about who we really are.

A little more than one-tenth of American high school seniors have enough knowledge of American history to qualify as whatever the National Assessment of Educational Progress defines as proficient.

No wonder Sarah Palin feels so much at home here. She knows nobody is going to care that she knows so little about Paul Revere.