[21 May 2003]
“History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth.”
E. L. Doctorow
A number of years ago, a cartoon appeared in The New Yorker of a portly and prosperous-looking midlife businessman walking down the street with a blissful smile on his face. The balloon above his head revealed his thoughts: I don’t remember anything I learned in high school.
We laugh at the cartoon, but if we’re honest, most of us know that we may well be in the same boat as that self-satisfied soul. In the subjects that weren’t our favorite or our forte, both in high school and college, we studied for the test, and once we got our A (or, okay, passed), the information leaked out of the sieves our parents always claimed our brains were.
Our state of ignorance, blissful or otherwise, is anything but a laughing matter these days, however. According to Department of Education statistics, American History is the #1 high school subject most likely to be forgotten, beating out (amazingly enough) even the big bugaboos of math and science as the curriculum offering today’s twelfth graders certifiably know the least about. In short, it’s about as bad as we feared: the kids don’t have a clue what the Declaration of Independence did or when the American Civil War occurred.
The really bad news is that it appears that many American adults don’t, either. According to a Columbia Law School survey, an “alarming number” of American voters have “serious misconceptions” about such basic things as the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Our general ignorance of our country’s past is so widespread and outrageous that it is the subject of comedy. Jay Leno’s “Jaywalk” segments, featured regularly on his television talk show, prove conclusively that the average citizen-on-the-street truly doesn’t know who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb, much less what his claim to fame was.
Don’t Know Much about History is one in Kenneth C. Davis’s Don’t Know Much About series of books designed to fill in the gaps that our education and/or our lack of personal application left. The book’s title is a reference to a famous Sam Cooke song of the early 60s, “What a Wonderful World,” whose opening line is, “Don’t know much about history/Don’t know much biology . . .”
A bestseller when it was originally released in 1990, this new edition is updated, revised and rewritten to take us from the latest archeological findings about who really discovered America right up to the ‘pregnant chad’ dilemma of our last presidential election and the nefarious activities of today’s ‘axis of evil’.
All the basic information you need to know to upgrade your own inner historical database is here, presented chronologically and with a general even-handedness that is a refreshing change from the media spin-makers’ take on events past and present. Davis considers himself “an equal opportunity basher, eager to reveal both sides of the political aisle.” Debunking myths is a raison d’etre for his writing this book, which attempts to balance out sensational headlines that create “new mythologies when a historic revelation gets the attention of news media for a brief time, and the facts are often left a little shaky.” Maybe the FBI’s notorious head, J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t a secret cross-dresser. Or Thomas Jefferson the father of slave children. Or JFK the victim of a ‘conspiracy theory’, as popularized by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film and hundreds of bestselling books claiming to ‘tell all’. The truth is, like it or not, that much of America absorbs their historical ‘knowledge’ from popular but unreliable sources.
Don’t Know Much About History is dense-packed with fascinating tidbits that would have made any American history course worth the effort for us to show up and be a willing sponge. Using letters, diaries and other sources, Davis offers intriguing glimpses into the humanity of our historical icons. Such as, do you know what George Washington actually said in 1776 when he and his ragged-ass troops crossed the Delaware River, a momentous moment of the American Revolution dramatically immortalized in the famous painting by Leutze? Did our Founding Father utter words of encouragement or wisdom to his cold, weary officers, or lead a prayer for success in battle or the safety of himself and his men? No, he looked at a grossly obese general named Henry “Ox” Knox and said: “Shift that fat ass, Harry. But slowly, or you’ll swamp the damned boat.” Now, really—don’t we like Knox’s recorded account of our first president a lot better than that cherry tree myth?
How about Martha Washington’s take on being the very first First Lady? She wrote in a letter: “I live a dull life . . . I never go to any public place. Indeed, I am more like a state prisoner than anything else I cannot do as I like.” A far cry from Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, for sure—but then again, in sentiment, maybe not. The loss of personal freedom and any semblance of a private life is the curse of all the great and famous.
Do you know why there’s a statue of American Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold’s boot? (Do you even know there is a statue of Arnold’s boot?) What’s the real story behind the Boston Tea Party? Are you aware that the Wall Street crash of 1929 didn’t cause the Great Depression, any more than the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand caused World War I or the sinking of the Lusitania caused our entrance into the same war? Do you have any idea how many political sex-in-high-places scandals have rocked the government since our country’s founding? (Answer: too damn many, and they’re all as stupid as the shenanigans of Bill and Monica.) Why was Ronald Reagan called the “Teflon president”? How did we bring the current war in Iraq upon ourselves by our political decisions over four decades ago?
From the weighty to the wacky, this comprehensive and amusing book covers it all. It’s best read in small increments, into which it is wisely divided—ideal for a section or two before bed or while sitting on the potty or having coffee. Kenneth C. Davis is the history teacher we always wished we’d had, and if we’d had him, we’d be in much better shape in terms of historical literacy. “History is really about the consequences of our actions—large and small We can use it to connect the dots from past to present You can draw a straight line from the Treaty of Versailles to the modern Middle East, Iran, and Iraq,” he reminds us in his introduction to Don’t Know Much About History. Davis interweaves politics, personalities, psychology, sociology, and quirky little anecdotes to make sense—and entertaining reading—out of a subject Henry Ford said seems to be “just one damn thing after the other”, an impression that many of us share, but which Don’t Know Much About History will change for good.
In a recent highly publicized speech in Washington, D.C., renowned historical biographer David McCullough denounced the teaching of history in politically correct but contextually isolated ‘segments’ that exist in a vacuum for students, giving them no sense of cause and effect or the larger picture into which events and movements fit. The ultimate result, McCullough stated, is a national “amnesia” that is “as great a threat to American freedoms as al Qaeda terrorists”—a sentiment that has, in different ways, been voiced by educational critics over the last twenty or so years, starting with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy on up to NYU professor Diane Ravitch’s just-published book, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Our Children Learn.
One only needs to listen to the news anchors, check out the letters to the editor in our newspapers, and consider the comments made by callers to C-Span’s Washington Journal on television to realize that we’re in danger of being influenced by opinions that, in many cases, are none too well-informed.
At a time as complex and critical as ours, ‘not knowing much’ about things is simply not an option anymore.