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This Independence Day, check your recall of history

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Pause for a few moments this Fourth of July weekend and try to think of the man who commanded America’s revolutionary troops in the pivotal Battle of Yorktown.

If you know, you’re doing better than 66 percent of college students who were asked that same question. (Hint: His initials are G.W.)

Unfortunately, studies show that many Americans don’t know U.S. history very well. And that is a disconcerting thought.

Over two-thirds of Americans polled in a survey commissioned by Columbia University’s law school believe Karl Marx’s maxim, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” was or could have been penned by our nation’s founders. That tidbit of radical Marxist thought describes his view on the proper means for distributing goods in a communist society and was not tucked into the U.S. Constitution by a left-leaning founding father.

“That’s troubling for a constitutional democracy in which popular consent underwrites the government’s legitimacy,” Columbia law professor Michael Dorf noted in a column on the school’s website.

An informed public is critical for the country to endure, Dorf writes: “Although the framers of our Constitution anticipated that the courts would invalidate unconstitutional laws, they also expected that ‘primary’ responsibility for setting constitutional limits would belong to elected representatives, and thus, ultimately, to the people.”

A rising tide of activism among the judiciary may well correlate with Americans’ diminished understanding of their rights and responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution. Who really holds the power in our participatory democracy?

A paper prepared by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni warns, “Our future leaders are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage — a kind of collective amnesia — and a profound historical illiteracy which bodes ill for the future of the republic.”

Only 34 percent of the aforementioned students at the nation’s leading universities and liberal arts colleges were able to identify George Washington as the American general at the Battle of Yorktown, the culminating battle of the American Revolution. More than a third of the students thought Ulysses S. Grant was in command at that battle.

Among other results of the survey, “Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century”:

— 42 percent knew that the phrase “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” refers to Washington.

— 23 percent correctly identified James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”

— 22 percent knew that the words “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is from the Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

“We are all in danger of losing a common frame of reference that has sustained our free society for so many generations,” the report states.

Whether this “historical amnesia” is the result of too much revisionist history, not enough history lessons or a complacency about our nation’s past, it is a path that bodes ill for the United States.

A 1999 survey by the Council for Excellence in Government, “America Unplugged: Citizens and Their Government,” revealed THAT 68 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds felt disconnected from government.

“Fundamentally, Americans lack a strong sense of ownership with regard to their government — instead of thinking of themselves as participants who help shape government, people feel more like the objects of government action,” the council stated. “Moreover, the level of disconnection between the citizenry and the government rises with each successively younger generation — an ominous trend for our nation’s future.”

Many Americans feel their government is no longer “of, by, and for the people,” the America Unplugged report states. They believe “special interests” hold too much sway over policy decisions and sense that the government “charts its own course” and is “unaccountable” to those it is supposed to serve.

The consequence of a citizenry that feels the government doesn’t have its interests at heart is a citizenry that tends to leave government to its own devices. When one in five high school seniors thinks Germany was a U.S. ally in World War II and 28 percent of eighth-graders don’t know why the Civil War was fought, we have more of a problem than just poor study skills.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
This article was adapted from Faith & Family Values magazine, published by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, on the Web at www.erlc.com.

    About the Author

  • Dwayne Hastings