Expensive Ignorance


It is not a surprise that a survey of 14,000 college freshmen and seniors reveals an unacceptable level of ignorance about the nation’s history, economics and its place in the world.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute authorized the survey, which was conducted by the University of Connecticut’s political-science department. In a random sampling, students from 50 colleges and universities were given a 60-question test with multiple-choice answers. The results were dismal.

Despite being at war with Iraq, 45 percent couldn’t identify the Baath Party as the main source of support for Saddam Hussein. Incredibly, nearly 6 percent said it was Israel!

Some 75 percent couldn’t identify the purpose of the Monroe Doctrine, and nearly 50 percent didn’t recognize the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence. And so on.

This was not a trick quiz, and these were not poor students from slum schools. Some of the most expensive colleges and universities in the country were included, and their students did not fare well.

I think this is a residue of the 1960s and 1970s. If you ever wondered where the Vietnam Era’s anti-war demonstrators and hippies went, the answer is to universities and media offices. They were of a mind that it is more important to knock America than to explain it, but education should be about explanation, not polemics or politics.

It’s my belief that if people don’t understand the South, including the Confederacy and Reconstruction, then they don’t understand America. If you’ve been taught that it was a civil war, which is a misnomer, that it was "all about slavery," then you’ve been robbed of the knowledge of the most important phase of American history next to the Revolution.

Some perceptive historians have called that period America’s French Revolution. It was a clear break from the constitutional republic to a nationalistic government, which became, as predicted, an empire.

Of course, slavery was part of the cause, but no large event has a single cause. Alexander Stephens said that slavery was the question but not the principle. What he meant was that the principle was constitutional government, which many in the North thought was not as important as abolishing slavery. There were also economic factors and cultural factors.

The British novelist Charles Dickens observed, "The Northern onslaught upon slavery is nothing more than a piece of specious humbug designed to conceal its desire for economic control of the Southern states." A good book on this subject is When in the Course of Human Events by Charles Adams.

There are easily more books in print about that war than about the American Revolution, but most of the interest has centered on the battles. Unless you are a professional military man or a hobbyist, studying battles is a worthless pastime. What Americans need to know is what led up to the war and what followed the war.

Jefferson Davis’ The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government and Alexander Stephens’ A Constitutional View of the War Between the States will take you through it step by step. Davis was president of the Confederate States of America, and Stephens was vice president.

The point of it all is that to do our duty as citizens, we must know the history of our country and the principles on which it was founded. Obviously, modern education is failing many students in that respect. Maybe 100 years ago, ignorance didn’t matter so much, but our margin of safety is gone, and we absolutely cannot expect to maintain this country with yahoos who get their education from television and the movies and those college graduates who are close to being the most expensive functional illiterates in the world.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

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