Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Illiterate of Her Own History : Cornerstone of America's Problems

I chose a segment of conservative columnist (and recent Pulitzer  Prize winner) Kathleen Parker's editorial today because it is something that has bothered me deeply. 

Parker is a "thinking conservative". By this I mean she is independent of thought on many issues, from promoting green technology to calling for Governor Sarah Palin  to step down from the position of vice-Presidential Candidate in 2008 on the sensible grounds that she was unqualified to lead the country by sheer inexperience and inability, for instance, to name a single newspaper or magazine she read regularly.   

For a country that is steeped in arguments from the Far Right about how our country should be governed more like the Founding Fathers envisioned it 230 years ago, it is important to reflect that many of the Founding Fathers like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were hostile to each other's vision of how the new nation should be governed. 


Hamilton, an aide-de-camp to General Washington during much of the war believed in a more British style of elitist government, with a life-time Senate (or Upper House) and a President with few controls on his power.  He later became the Secretary of the Treasury in Washington's government.

For his time Hamilton was the Conservative, a leader of the Federalist Party .  His ideas for promoting a national bank,  and the early manufacturing interests of the USA  made him the ideal "urban man" of his time. 

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, believed in a more populist government of yeoman farmers and had a dread of the banking and manufacturing interests taking hold of the country. He was the Secretary of State in that first Presidential Cabinet. His was the old Democratic Party--a party dedicated to small government and upholding individual rights.  Jefferson's ideals of freedom--albeit at the time those only concerning white males of property--clashed with  Hamilton's views.

"A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government."
Thomas Jefferson

 Hamilton saw the need for centralized power to deal with the emerging economic power of the young republic, to consolidate the debts incurred by the thirteen states during the revolution against Britain into a federal government liability, and to deal forcefully witrh the mini-rebellions brought on by the need for the taxation and the efforts of men to avoid contribution to the common good for selfish ends.  

"In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place, oblige it to control itself." 
Alexander Hamilton

That Jefferson was a slave-holder and Hamilton possibly a double agent for the British while negotiating a treaty with France in the 1790's not withstanding, these men represent the core friction in American history---how to balance the democratic or Jeffersonian ideals of America with the meritocratic and proto-capitalist side of the young nation. It is still a friction today, long after George Washington had to try and keep these two men together in some form of concord in his cabinet.

To at least understand the backdrop of this argument is a prerequisite for understanding the debate we are having-today about the role of government and the influence of big business in our lives. 

But what if we cannot have a serious debate about it when the issues are clouded by ignorance  and fear.  I believe this is what is happening today. 

To Kathleen Parker's column:

"America's growing historical illiteracy is well-known to educators and policymakers, a glance at the statistics likely would surprise most Americans.

"In 2006, for instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute tested the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.

"Also in 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the "Nation's Report Card," found that only about one-sixth of students in grades four, eight and 12 are proficient in American history.

"Students are brilliant, apparently, when it comes to popular culture, something we've long known. In a 1999 survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), 98 percent of students from 55 top colleges and universities could identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg and 99 percent knew who Beavis and Butt-head were.

"It is one thing to debate the merits of American exceptionalism, though at the current rate of our growing national ignorance there soon won't be anyone with whom to argue. It is another not to know the essential facts of our founding.

"Students can't be blamed for not knowing what they haven't been taught. Another ACTA study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. In the lower grades, those who do study history will bump into the name George Washington far less often than did previous generations. Washington coverage in many textbooks is 10 percent of what it was 50 years ago, according to Mount Vernon executive director Jim Rees.

"Even so, adults don't know much either. A national survey of adults commissioned by the American Revolution Center found that 83 percent failed a basic test on the American Revolution.

"We may not know much, but we seem to understand, as the Founders did, that a free society can function only insofar as its citizens are well educated. The same survey found that 90 percent of Americans think that knowledge of the American Revolution is very important."


So what are we left with?  A nation that has activists yelling at one another about issues and past arguments that most of the participants only have the foggiest notion about. A nation ignorant of its own past with millions ready to be led astray by any demagogue who can throw a few half-truths into "the market-place of ideas".  A nation which cannot pretend to appreciate what the Founding Fathers themselves were arguing about and how far apart they were on many issues.  (And I left out early founders like Patrick Henry and George Mason, both of whom bolted from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia when they couldn't get the type of states-rights government they wanted.)

Why do Americans allow anyone in print or through radio or television to talk about the Founding Fathers as if they were all of one mind?  Why can't we take education in civics seriously anymore?  Why is history thrown away like this and how long can ignorant people hope to even pretend to govern themselves?     



  1. When it comes to politics I wished more were free thinkiners instead of recyling the words of others. *Smiles*

  2. I agree Growed. But we also need the best ideas from the past as our foundation.

  3. they often had fights during debates...I believe Hamilton was killed in a duel...amazing great post!!

  4. Thanks Mike. Yes, Hamilton was sadly killed in a duel...a terrible loss, especially at the hands of a scoundrel like Burr.

  5. Thanks Heidi. I have to credit Ms. Parker for some of the inspiration.

  6. This is a travesty. We can learn a lot from our past. Our previous leaders had a lot to say and should be studied. They inspired a new nation. Their views may be dated but it should be learned. The U.S. Constitution has held up for the better part of 2 and half centuries. That kind of thinking needs to be shared.

  7. I totally agree Fred. Just carrying around a pocket sized version of the Bill of Rights, as some protesters seem to like to do-- doesn't cut it. Students of all ages need to understand the various main viewpoints of our leaders in crucial times in our history (the Federalist Era, The Civil War, The New Deal, Reagan's Era, et al. )

    It is a travesty that history has been relegated to some kind of academic ghetto. The ignorance of this generation is endemic of a long slide that was not much better a few decades back.

    We are a nation of dissenters who never marched in lockstep. Those who think they can make decisions about voting for leaders based on spoonfuls of paid advertising aren't worthy of the Rights they claim to uphold.

  8. America is certainly not alone in this respect Doug. The same criticism could easily be levelled at the British. However, history is a notoriously malleable subject and as you indicate with regard to the Founders, there is more than one history to take into account. Official histories are always simplistic and propagandist, written by the victors to support whatever ideology is approved of at the time. Real history is a personal journey that looks back as we move forward, the rear view mirror of our lives that is or should be an endless voyage of discovery.

    Inspiring an interest in history is thus far more important in my view than 'teaching' is like a conceptual jigsaw puzzle that underlies our 'map' of where we and our society is situated in the world.

    We can't know where we are going if we have no notion of where we came from, but the account of our origins has to be our own and based upon our own voyage of discovery.

    The failure of 'official' histories like that of America could equally be seen as an essential precondition to that voyage of discovery, the problem is I think that people are generally unaware of how important the journey really is, for them and for society.

    I haven't got time just now to make all the points I'd like to here Doug, it is a subject close to my heart, but thanks for starting that discussion off Doug, it is a very important one I think.

  9. I never read Howard Zinn, but now that he is gone, maybe it is time...
    A People's History of the U.S.

  10. I need to reread Howard's Zinn's book after too long a hiatus. Thanks for the remainder Darlene.

  11. Totally agree AA. Official histories can at best be a foundation to start greater personal exploration of our history. What I like to call the "Walt Disney View of American History" can only do injustice to all those "conceptual jigsaw puzzles" we all have to sift through for ourselves.

    We all need to be mentally armed against those who offer simplistic views of the past to their advantage--and to smarten ourselves up to these sales pitches posing as objective renderings of America or Britain.

  12. Here's a good example of "official history" from my own time as a school lad --a 1957 Walt Disney low budget film called "Johnny Termain". It concerned revolutionary Boston during the time of the famous 1773 "Tea Party" but appeared to have been filmed in a small backlot somewhere in Burbank.

    Even when I first saw this, my classmates seriously doubted anyone in His Majesty's Massachusetts Colony had such good dental work as the actors' capped choppers appear in this film.

    The superficiality of the storyline was good fodder for hundreds of fifth-grade school rooms in America who had this shown to eager young kids on old school projectors. (Any audio-visual entertainment was a break from the boredom of chalkboard rote learning. I saw this little epic in parts back in 1971 so I'm sure it had been around in US schools for awhile. )

    Anyway, here is what I think many of my generation carry in their heads today as far as visual imagery when they think of the start of the revolution even if much better written material later by Howard Zinn and Barbara Tuchman, et al, enlightened us.

    Note: No actual British constables, stuffed-shirted Royal Governors nor tax collectors were harmed in the making of this film.

  13. LOL Fantastic Doug, I too grew up on a similar diet of historical epics with stirring soundtracks and dashing heroes.
    I must say I've always had a soft spot for propaganda ever since and I'm delighted to encounter it in any of its many guises.

    I think it is interesting that even when we know this is total bollocks we still find ourselves moved and our pulses quickened by the music, images, the smoke and the mirrors, because everybody wants to believe they're 'special' and that is the fascinating thing we call 'patriotism' in a nutshell I think.

    It is the absurd notion that where we are born is somehow 'special' (apparently by virtue of us being born there).... and we reflect that specialness as beacons of some imagined and very 'special' 'destiny'...

    Actually I think the study of history is the antidote to such delusions of grandeur, individual and collective.

    That is not to say however that it isn't right to feel deep attachment to the place you live or were born, there's nothing wrong with that.... so long as you realise that everyone else feels the same and with equal justification.

    Only a critical review of history and a forensic delving into former times tells us why that is.....but at the same time it makes us who we are and that is it's greatest gift... but also its biggest threat.

    Politics without a critical history is nothing more than entertainment...with the clip you have posted I rest my case Doug ...thanks for posting it.

  14. Why does there always have to be such a come down after every great trip Doug?.... Drat it, better luck next time.

  15. I'm glad you addressed the attraction of that simple version of history---Us (say the Boston rebels of plain speech and modest dress) against Them (in the case of Disney's "Johnny Termain", those heavy-handed redcoats smashing up printing presses, and those bewigged royalists and military officers, the lot of them toffs in frilly cuffs with big bellies covered in sashes or second-rate bullies busting up a tea shop or printing press.) The internecine quarrels and debates amongst American rebels and Lord North's government and the Parliament--some of whom were sympathetic to American reform-- are not covered at all.

    Yes ,we do all want to feel special. This feeling comes up in us before we can employ critical thinking. The past is part of who we are; the difficulty comes whe nwe lack the information to see all sides of the arguments, all the reasons for any conflict.

    And there isn't anything wrong with attachment to a place we are familiar with and to past generations who have men and women worth looking up to. The problem becomes in national or ethnic chauvanism and excessive pride of place. The 20th Century alone has shown the dangerss of that mind-set.

  16. I suspect if such a film were made today, AA, the violence in a popular film treatment would be "juiced up" like a video game. Youngsters addled by explosions and such on their computer systems could watch, say, the severed limbs of musket-toting British Regulars sailing back over their own lines at the Battle of Concord Bridge.

    Still no complex ideas, but lots of gore.

  17. we germans know where that leads right--and I hate to see america running in that direction--

  18. That outcome is always in the back of my mind, Heidi.

  19. Far-seeing in this instance at least. I suspect that most of those people wishing to return to days of old are harking back to some nostalgic fantasies of their own which little or nothing to do with the reality that actually was. The US was the first democracy I think where people could see a vision of a world with no Kings ruling only because of the accident of birth but rather a world where men (and we mean men literally of course) could elect a government which was supposed to represent their interests. Because this was a first it would be likely that many mistakes would have been made (and they were) and so therefore the whole democratic thing needed to be a dynamic and changing form of government. Static would be stagnant, people of colour would still be slaves and women would still be beasts of burden for men, for instance, had change not happened.

    Everything is open for review especially governments and I would argue that there are now deep-seated flaws in how US government is run and these flaws desperately need to be addressed. But not by going backwards in time to some mythical past.

    As stated above, democracy can only work when all the people are as educated as possible, they must know and understand their history and be capable of objective critique, otherwise they will once again be enslaved by the rulers.

  20. I commend you, Iri Ani, on an excellent summing up of what I was trying to get at with my more long-winded style. Thomas Jefferson was a weird duck in a lot of ways, but he was a man of his time and place who laid a foundation with his concept of the Bill of Rights that other Americans of differnet times and gender and race have improved upon.

    Some do indeed see the Constitution as a static document. This was far from Jefferson's intention, nor that of another future President, James Madison, who was the older Virginian's protege and is called, rightfully, "The Father of The Constitution". This was the intention with the amendment process, which makes our laws organic in the sense that we can build inclusion upon inclusion for so many.

    A lot of the American Constitution is dated. Our Electoral College for election of Presidents, for example, is a tired specimen of the early republic that needs to be put out of its misery. It almost makes me grind my teeth to see some of the statistics I've read on how little Americans know about their past---and it shows in how little we really expect from our elected representitives. They take advantage of that ignorance, they rely on it to spread lies and distortions. Without the capacity of prior knowledge and critical thinking, citizens are indeed at the mercy of de facto rulers, not men and women in power who should mind their place in the public sphere.

    Thanks for your valued contribution.