Americans' Dangerous Ignorance of History · 24 July 2005

01:00 AM EDT on Saturday, July 23, 2005

NEW BRITAIN -- IGNORANCE of history is a bad thing. Sometimes it can cause people to make fools of themselves.

A few weeks ago, on the basis of a single FBI report alleging that captured terrorists incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay are tortured, Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.) analogized the treatment that these terrorists receive there -- which includes food superior to that which American troops in Iraq are fed -- to the Holocaust, in which the Nazis murdered nearly 6 million Jews; to the labor camps that Stalin oversaw in the Soviet Union, where upward of 12 million innocent people died of starvation, disease, or exposure; and to the mass murder of some 1.5 million Cambodians by the Communist regime of Pol Pot. All told, communism, as a ruling ideology, has been responsible in the 20th Century for the deaths of about 100 million people.

To compare the worst of what goes on at Guantanamo Bay to any or all of these atrocities is not only ludicrous. It is obscene.

One explanation for why Senator Durbin could draw these analogies with a straight face is that, like many of my colleagues at Central Connecticut State University, he is driven by a hatred of President Bush that borders on the pathological. On my own campus, President Bush is regularly vilified not only on bulletin boards and the doors of faculty offices but also in graffiti in the men's bathrooms. One CCSU professor has posted articles on the campus-wide e-mail list-serve that call the president a Nazi and a traitor.

Another explanation for Durbin's comments -- his apology for them did not include a retraction of the analogies themselves -- is that the senator is abysmally ignorant of history, an ignorance he shares with large numbers of Americans, especially students, who one would hope would know better.

A Zogby poll commissioned by the National Association of Scholars in 2002 reveals the extent of the problem. When asked in what country the Battle of Waterloo was fought, only 3 percent of college seniors identified Belgium. When asked who was the first person to fly nonstop alone across the Atlantic Ocean, only 49 percent knew it was Charles Lindbergh.

By comparison, 64 percent of college students in the 1950s got the first question right, while 96 percent got the second.

Other surveys have shown a comparable lack of knowledge of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Having taught history on the college level for nearly three decades, I can attest to the dumbing down of higher education in America. Among the factors responsible for this, in my view, is the obsession with "multiculturalism," shared by many university professors and administrators.

By stressing the virtues while minimizing the failings -- indeed the crimes -- of countries and cultures different from our own, the mantra of multiculturalism parroted mindlessly by members of the professoriate has produced students who think that America's history -- to the extent that they are aware of it -- is a horrifying tale of unending racism, imperialism, and exploitation.

Fortunately, help is on the way. U.S. Rep. Thomas Petri (R.-Wis.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R.-N.H.) have introduced in the House and Senate, respectively, a bill, the Higher Education for Freedom Act, which would encourage colleges and universities to establish programs, courses, and occasional lectures on American political and legal history. It would also provide funding for hiring faculty and for graduate and post-doctoral fellowships in these subjects.

While some faculty may complain that the Higher Education for Freedom Act would limit academic freedom in its emphasis on the beneficence of American values and institutions, its effect would be the reverse. By ensuring the inclusion in curricula of the opinion that America has much to commend it -- an opinion that is sorely underrepresented in academia -- it would create a genuine "free marketplace of ideas," without which academic freedom is meaningless.

Everyone who believes that students should know what is good about America, as well as the bad things it has undeniably done, should support this bill, and the concept of a balanced education that it seeks to make a reality. At the very least, it might prevent public officials such as Senator Durbin from demonstrating that having a little bit of knowledge is often worse than having none at all.

Jay Bergman is a professor of Russian history at Central Connecticut State University and president of the Connecticut Association of Scholars.