Four years ago, I was in the jam-packed audience at a cultural center for an enthralling evening with the great historian David McCullough.
He spoke that night with great urgency about a gathering storm that doesn’t involve terrorism, nuclear proliferation or the national debt. Yet the crisis he confronted was every bit as much a threat to America’s future, over time if not quite as immediately, as any of these others – that is, our nation’s loss of its own history.
McCullough, who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman, described most of the history textbooks being used in our schools as “atrocious.”
“They’re a pile of politically correct mush,” he stated to roaring applause from the crowd.
How bad is it?
McCullough told of speaking at one prestigious university where a student said afterward she’d never realized before that “all of the 13 original colonies were on the East Coast.”
He also told of addressing a group of Dartmouth College honor students who were majoring in history, and being dismayed to learn that none of them knew who George Marshall was. Finally, one of them asked: “Did he have anything to do with the Marshall Plan?”
Then there was the time that McCullough, then 73, was asked: “Besides John Adams and Harry Truman, which other U.S. presidents have you interviewed?”
“Appearances notwithstanding,” he noted, “I never met John Adams.”
That’s how bad it is.
Consequently, we now have Jay Leno doing his “Jaywalking” segments on “The Tonight Show” in which he asks general knowledge questions like “How was Mount Rushmore formed?” and gets serious responses like “Erosion.”
This may be merely anecdotal evidence of how far we’ve fallen, but it is consistently corroborated by test scores, national surveys and the like.
Last month, the Department of Education released the results of its latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, and once again we see there is none. Progress, that is. Not even a quarter of American students is proficient in U.S. history, and the percentage declines as students grow older. Thus, the longer they’re in our government schools, the worse they do.
Yet it wasn’t always this way. During our founding era – the subject of McCullough’s superb books “John Adams” and “1776” – there were only about 2.5 million people living in America (500,000 of whom were slaves). So how did the country produce such giants of history as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, et. al. among such a relatively small populace?
McCullough has cited several reasons, including their absolute reliance on Providence (which the founders defined as the will and working of God in their lives). He points out that they believed they could not have won their independence or birthed a new nation without the hand of God working on their behalf. The more you study the Revolution, he explained, the more you realize it was “a miracle” that America prevailed in it.
But young people today aren’t studying the Revolution – so they don’t know these things. And that’s by design.
For the past half century, there has been a concerted effort to de-emphasize our founders, the (biblical) principles upon which they established this nation and America’s Christian heritage – for the express purpose of robbing us of that heritage. Consequently, most people today believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” is found in the Declaration or our Constitution. It is not. Indeed, the principle itself is antithetical to our founders’ original intent, which was to restrict government, not religion (the so-called Establishment Clause declares that “Congress shall make no law …”).
At the same time, most people today have no idea that God is mentioned no less than four times in the Declaration, and He is acknowledged in it as the Source of all our human rights. That’s what makes these rights unalienable and therefore inviolable – they weren’t given to us by man (government), so they cannot legitimately be taken away or superseded by man (government).
As all of this was taking place over the past half century, we also saw a de-emphasizing of American history itself – our true history, that is, since an honest reading of U.S. history reveals a veritable wealth of examples of American exceptionalism. In its place, political and cultural and media elites have served up a distorted version of historical events promulgated by leftist radicals like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.
Their singular focus upon a perverse blend of historical revisionism and the darkest chapters of our great experiment has served, first, to undermine the whole idea of American exceptionalism and, second, to enshrine the “values” of leftism/liberalism in the collective consciousness.
With all this, there has been a corresponding attack upon patriotism itself and the love of America. Remember that for years President Obama refused to wear a flag pin on his lapel – until he felt compelled to do so during the 2008 campaign to win and maintain broad public support. He has also dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism, apologized for America’s supposed evils all over the world on his Global Groveling Tour, and repeatedly removed all mention of God when quoting from the Declaration and making other historical references.
It has well been said that those who forget history are bound to repeat it, and be forced to learn anew its most bitter lessons. Moreover, one of the surest ways of undermining the future of any nation is to take away its past. As the Bible warns in Psalm 11:3: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” It’s a rhetorical question, for there is nothing anyone can do once the foundations of any nation have been destroyed. And as someone else once famously said, all that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.
Thus, the question right now might be: As the foundations are being destroyed, what will the righteous do? And the answer to that question may very well determine if America will continue to prosper into the future, or go the way of so many others who lost their history and lost their way, never to recover.
Tom Flannery writes for a newspaper in Pennsylvania. His opinion pieces have appeared in publications such as Newsday, the Los Angeles Times, MovieGuide and Christian Networks Journal. He has won the two $10,000 awards for opinion writing, the Eric Breindel Award for Outstanding Opinion Journalism from News Corp/The New York Post in 2000 and the first-place prize in the Amy Foundation Writing Awards in 2008. He has won eight Amy Awards in all, as well as a Keystone Award from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publishers Association for his work. He is author of the book “1939: The Year in Movies,” and an essay he wrote on Hollywood was included in the book “The Culture-Wise Family” by Dr. Ted Baehr and Pat Boone.