Historical ignorance threatens America

October 9, 2020


In the ancient world, when nations conquered their foes they followed familiar patterns. Generally, the conqueror would execute most adults of the elite and educated class. They would destroy the memorials of the defeated nation’s past and destroy the sacred places. The uneducated rural populace were usually left behind. The conquering nation would take the conquered nation’s wealth and bring back the children of the defeated nation’s elite/educated class to acculturate them. The complete vanquishing of the conquered nation occurred when the link to the nation’s past and culture was broken in that generation. America is in danger of a fate similar to that of ancient conquered, but from an internal enemy using similar pattern. Let me explain.


First, it’s important to note the one conquered nation that survived the ancient means of destruction. When the Babylonians conquered the Hebrew Kingdom of Judea in the sixth century B.C., Hebrew children of the educated class were taken back to Babylon. As described in the first book of Daniel, the exiled children Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (and others not named) dedicated themselves to their national history. As the book of Daniel continues, we discover this exiled generation’s dedication to the nation’s history. After approximately 70 years, the Hebrews brought the national culture back to Judea to continue as a nation. The nation of Israel later maintained itself through diaspora from the land of Israel for almost two millennia through generational dedication to history in scripture. The young Hebrews learning and following their history made the difference.


Beyond the many examples of nations destroyed by conquest from outside, history also records nations being destroyed from within in a similar way. One modern example is the “Cultural Revolution” in China from 1966 to 1976. Driven by communist dictator Mao Zedong, this was an attempt to take China from an ancient national culture to a communist China disconnected from the past. From 1958-1962, more than 30 million Chinese died in famines due to Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and Mao worried about Chinese history making a comeback against communism due to the tragedy. Students from China’s elite Beijing University, who called themselves the “Red Guards,” went throughout China attempting to destroy any vestige of the nation’s history. Red Guards went after what they called “the four olds.” This included violence and persecution against anyone suspected of harboring “old” ideas. It descended into violence and mayhem, killing millions. The young Red Guards were educated after the victory of the Communist Revolution in China in 1949 and so didn’t have that connection to China’s past. They went after those who were old enough to have been educated in the history of “old” China.


According to Chinese-American Helen Raleigh, whose family suffered first-hand through the Cultural Revolution:  “Mao’s Cultural Revolution movement was the darkest chapter in China’s history. It should be called “Cultural Destruction.” It brought the Chinese people nothing but misery. It did fundamentally transform Chinese society:  millions, including a generation of China’s intellectual backbone, perished and an entire young generation grew up without any formal education. It tore the social fabric that used to unite people and overturned traditional close relationships among families and communities. Its irreplaceable destruction of China’s cultural heritage left Chinese people in a spiritual and moral vacuum.”


For the Cultural Revolution to occur, the end of Chinese history among the college students was necessary. Red Guard students learned to hate and despise the history of China. This led to hatred against older Chinese who appeared to have nostalgia for Chinese culture. Red Guards saw themselves superior to the older generation educated in Chinese history and culture and sought its destruction. 


We are seeing the potential for a cultural revolution with the lack of historical knowledge among American youth. The evidence of historical ignorance is overwhelming. In 2011, Glenn Ricketts wrote the following for the National Association of Scholars in “Knowledge of American History Rapidly becoming History”:  “The bad news about history education keeps piling up. Our recently released study, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010, documents the drastic changes in undergraduate history requirements since our baseline year of 1964. The once-familiar survey in Western Civilization, or some close equivalent, we found, has simply vanished … If college students do study history, the chances that they’ll gain any sense of the Big Picture once imparted by the old broad surveys are essentially nil … (Only) 20 percent of fourth grade students, 17 percent of eighth graders and 12 percent of high school seniors performed well enough to be rated “proficient.” (in history) … 80 percent of fourth graders, 83 percent of eighth graders and 88 percent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating. And within the senior cohort, a mere two percent correctly answered a question about the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.” 


Historic knowledge has only spiraled downhill since 2011 in the decreasing performance of college students with respect to American history. A 2018 Woodrow Wilson Center Poll found that 60 percent of college students couldn’t name our enemies in World War Two, and 37 percent believed Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb. There was complete historic ignorance of the Holocaust. A 2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 15 percent of eighth graders were proficient at U.S. history. At the same time, the studies found exploding alternatives to U.S. history in cultural studies and other such programs. This dynamic helps explain why the completely discredited “history” of the 1619 Project made such headway.


Americans must recognize the danger of the lack of knowledge of American history among our young. It’s also time to recognize the danger of what’s filling the void with alternative “history” bringing hatred of America. We must understand and recognize the connection between national historic ignorance and the seeming hatred for America we have experienced. We are all too aware of the destruction of many historic national icons and destruction of so many memorials to American history and culture. The similarity with the Cultural Revolution in China is inescapable. History teaches that a nation is only vanquished when a generation is cut off from its past. Let’s ensure our past is preserved, if we want to ensure America is never vanquished.


Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel Graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.


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