Universal Translator

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Does Modern Debate Foster American Ignorance?

The New York Times had a story yesterday about how American students know less about U.S. history than any other subject.  This seems to be old news.  I remember reading a story a year or so ago that reported a significant portion of American adults were unable to correctly identify two of the three countries America fought in World War II.

I remember marveling when I read that.  Even if no one surveyed ever attended a history class in his or her life, World War II is part of our national culture -- had none of those people ever seen a WWII movie?  Sure, Italy tends to get short shrift in these films, but I just don't understand how one can grow to be an adult in our country and not at least know that WWII involved us fighting Germany and Japan.

I was reminded of that when I read the New York Times story and saw that one example of our country's high school seniors' ignorance of American history is that few were "able to identify China as the North Korean ally that fought American troops during the Korean  War."  Was this really supposed to be surprising?

Korea is often referred to as "the forgotten war," and with good reason.  WWII basically supports an entire entertainment industry, as does the Vietnam War.  But you just don't see a lot of documentaries or films being made about the Korean War.  And I don't recall ever learning anything about that war when I was in high school, or even during the history classes I took in college.  In fact, the only reason I learned that China was a North Korean ally is because - like a lot of people my age - I grew up watching M.A.S.H.  Pathetically, the sum total of my knowledge of the Korean War comes from that television show.

Which makes me wonder why the New York Times's Sam Dillon picked this factoid to put in the first paragraph of his article.  Is it really the case that most people think the Korean War was a central conflict about which all U.S. high school students should know?  Or is it more the case that - like me - Dillon absorbed a few basic facts about the Korean War from watching one of the most popular television shows of all time and now can't comprehend how other people don't know what the both of us unthinkingly imbibed through our popular culture?

Its ability to round out my knowledge of recent events is one of the reasons I am a big fan of popular culture, at least that part of it we have easy access to.  Watching movies and television shows, listening to music, and reading popular books produced in the 50's, 60's and 70's catches me up on a lot of stuff I missed simply because I wasn't around for it.  Pop culture can't supplant studying actual history, of course, but it can supplement it to a great degree.  Especially with the Internet, recent pop culture is more accessible now than ever before.

Which is one of the reasons I get so incensed when I see people opine on things about which they do not know, and then when called on it reply:  "Well, that was before my time."  As if because it was before their time is sufficient reason not only for them not to know about it, but for them to dismiss it as irrelevant.

The most egregious example of which I am aware occurred about two years ago, back when President Obama had been in office for about 5 months and was struggling (as supposedly he still is) to get the economy back on track.  Meghan McCain had been invited to appear on Real Time With Bill Maher, ostensibly for what she had to contribute on presidential politics. 

At one point, McCain claimed that it was inappropriate for President Obama to blame the country's economic problems on George W. Bush -- I mean, sure Bush had been in charge for 8 years but by the time this show rolled around he already had been gone 5 months.  When Paul Begala pointed out that after taking office Ronald Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter for the nation's economic slump for years, McCain attempted to dismiss this fact with the non sequitor "I wasn't even born yet so I don't know," and Begala - rightly - schooled her for it:

What rankles is not that Meghan McCain did not know recent presidential history -- though this appears to be what she was invited on the show to discuss -- but that she so obviously didn't think she should be expected to know anything that occurred prior to her own birth.  Even more, she seemed to think that her own ignorance somehow rebutted actual facts presented by someone who disagreed with her.

Translating this attitude into rational sentences, you end up with something like this:

Advocate:     I assert Proposition A.

Opponent:     History shows that Proposition A is incorrect.

Advocate:      Well, I don't know about that because that happened before I was
                      born.  Since I don't know about that, I don't have to accept it.
                      Therefore, you haven't proven me wrong.

In the end, it comes down to a very basic misunderstanding that seems to prevail in our modern discourse:  that all views, so long as they are sincerely held, are equally valid.

It doesn't make any sense, of course, but given that we seem increasingly to be turning into a "now oriented" society, given our media's refusal to present facts to their audiences instead of simply reporting competing claims, and given that literally everything (does smoking cause cancer?  do carbon dioxide emissions lead to climate change? does life actually evolve?) is unsettled and up for debate so long as even one person sincerely claims it is, what more can we expect?

In fact, given that this is how policy debates increasingly are conducted in our country, aren't we simply fostering ignorance?  It used to be that if you wanted to prevail in an argument, you had to be able to marshal facts.  Now you just have to be able to marshal sound bites.  And if you can maintain ignorance about what you are talking about, you never run the risk of being forced to accept a fact you don't like.


  1. Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

  2. "when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor" is the single greatest soundbite of all time.

  3. Unlike many countries, notably France, the United States lacks a coherent framework for teaching history. In most schools history is simply taught based on whatever textbook happens to be at hand. There is little coherent elaboration or building from one grade level to the next. In high school and college there may be only a minimum of history taught, much of it elective.

    In contrast the French man and woman, everyone, has gone through a rigorous and systematized structure of learning about French history. Not only is it taught in depth but it is taught as a framework that all French citizens have some knowledge of and share.

    In short, the French, and I am sure that the Germans, and the citizens of many, many other countries, are aware of history more as a structured framework the pieces of which fit together. Factual errors are not allowed or are quickly corrected.

    It is in part how we think about history as an idea that determines the respect and the importance that we give to it.

    Journalism has been called "the first rough draft of history." But journalism today is pretty bad at writing news with historical accuracy and objectivity. Even the New York Times became a cheerleader for the Iraq war. With such carefree dismissal of facts and denials of realities, no wonder the idea of history -- which is nothing more than the agreed upon story of how we got to where we are -- is given little importance by anyone save historians. It is seen by most as mutable, subjective (not objective) and prone to constant revisions.

    I would also suggest that without an early grounding in and love for history, it is hard later to catch up.

    We are awash in a sea of facts, dates and figures. The only way to hold on to them, and make some sense of them, is to have a structure in place to fit them -- a framework of history.

    The teaching of math and science in our schools has been emphasized at the expense of subjects like history. This is unfortunate.

    A cynic might say we are dumbing down our electorate to make our citizenry more tractable.
    The Ministry of Truth then has free rein.

    Yeah, and we paid those Germans back, didn't we?


  4. As you know, I am a big fan of narrative. People who place too much a belief in "facts" are often disappointed. Given any set of facts, I can spin you at least 7 different stories if asked.

    This is the genius of mankind. We are story-telling creatures.

    History is much the same thing, and it can be used or abused in the same way. Mostly when people think of things like "abusing history" they think of George Orwell's "memory hole," and the horrors of Soviet Russia.

    But none of that is limited to "totalitarian" systems. Talk to anybody here today, and you will hear how America is a Nation Established Under God, how our Founding Fathers fought against slavery, and how women were always considered the equal of any man.

    Unless confronted, we create the past to reflect our present. And we never, never, get to glimpse the future.

  5. And this is precisely why that unless we think of history as a rigorous discipline it devolves into mythology and becomes servant rather than master to the truth.


  6. er, master rather than servant of truth ....

  7. Yes. I knew what you meant the first time I read your comment. Still very nice.

  8. Whoah... if the sum of what you know about the Korean War comes from M.A.S.H., that is really sad... especially given that I detected very little information about Korea in that show. Most of the costumes were Vietnamese... I actually think the show was about Vietnam, in reality.

    There are a ton of films, and some that are really good, about the Korean War. One is Taegukgi, which is a must see. There is another being made this year.