For Memorial Day some thoughts on historical memory.
We are losing it. We are less versed in the facts of history, not only of other countries but of our own. It is a crisis, and much has been written on it over the years. “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by and large historically illiterate,” observes the historian David McCullough in his latest book. He describes a bright Missouri college student who thanked him for coming to the campus, because, she said, “until now I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.” Another student once asked him: “Aside from Harry Truman and John Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?”
What explains the new dumbness? Some blame boring textbooks put together by committee and scrubbed clean of the politically inconvenient and incorrect. Some argue that so many strange, culturally fashionable things are jammed into public school curricula that essentials have been forced out. Many point to a certain negativity, a focus on our national sins that has crowded out our achievements. This is counterproductive: a sophisticated presentation of our triumphs and tragedies makes our sins all the more poignant and powerful. Historical balance leaves young minds not cynical, which is always an excuse to do nothing, but inspired—we can right wrongs, we’ve done it before.