Another confession of my own historical ignorance (but not agnorance this time):
Charley Reese writes on LRC today about the “Expensive Ignorance” of today’s college students. He starts out with the unsurprising results of a recent survey. These things have been coming out for years and the media loves it because it gives good sound bite: e.g., “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.”
My confession is that I had to double-check the Monroe Doctrine. My wife had a similar reaction. Manifest Destiny, wasn’t it? expanding across the continent?
Well, yes and no. The result was territorial expansionism, but the doctrine is simply the claim that European activity in “the Americas” is the business of the US government. This seems to be an explicit rejection of George Washington’s warnings against foreign entanglements.
Like so many other examples, the doctrine was seen as liberal because it was anti-colonial. The result of course, was the Roosevelt Corollary and the Truman Doctrine.
I wonder if my poor memory of the specifics is a product of time and laziness, or if I get to blame this one on my teachers. The fact that my wife’s semi-memory was the same as mine — “something about expanding across the continent?” — implies to me that it’s the teachers.
Charley Reese blames them explicitly:
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.
I need to think about that. The thesis strikes me as right but not entirely right.
I know that the Civil Rights era of the 20th century changed how the so-called Civil War was taught. (Apparently the claim that it was “all about slavery” would have seemed cartoonish to students in the 1950s and earlier.)
But did the Baby Boomers really shift the whole emphasis of history and foreign events from complexity and explanation to taking sides and jumping to conclusions?
If American students in the 1950s perceived the war of the 1860s as complex, I don’t think they had the same perspective on the war of the 1940s.
Historical Revisionism as a movement goes back to the 1920s, where its emphasis was to critique the Establishment claims of the Treaty of Versailles. You don’t get much more dumbed-down black-and-white than Woodrow Wilson’s version of events.
I’m not ready to dismiss Reese’s thesis, but the history and economics of schooling seem like plenty to explain an ignorant mass of college students. The “Vietnam Era’s anti-war demonstrators and hippies” are neither necessary nor sufficient.