Compound Ignorance

Published November 1, 1987

In the spring of 1986, a statistically representative sample of 8,000 American 17-year-olds enrolled in U.S. history courses was surveyed by the Department of Education on their knowledge of basic historical facts. The results were, well, striking:

68% of the sample couldn’t locate the Civil War within the correct half century (1850-1900), while 43% couldn’t place the First World War within the correct fifty-year period (1900-1950).

32% thought that Columbus had discovered the New World after 1750.

39% couldn’t identify 1750-1800 as the half-century in which the U.S. Constitution was written.

40% couldn’t place the bombing of Pearl Harbor within the correct four-year period (1939-1943).

40% couldn’t identify Magna Carta as the foundation of the British parliamentary system.

40% didn’t know that the purpose of the Federalist papers was to secure ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Literary ignorance compounded historical illiteracy: 64% of the survey couldn’t identify Geoffrey Chaucer as the author of the Canterbury Tales; 84% didn’t know that Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov; 67% didn’t know the region of the United States in which William Faulkner’s novels were set; 72% couldn’t identify Willa Cather as the author of such novels about the settling of the American West as Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Antonia; and 60% didn’t know that Walt Whitman was the American poet who wrote Leaves of Grass.

What do these figures, appalling as they are, have to do with the types of things that concern us in AMERICAN PURPOSE?

Simply this: They are a useful caution about the present enthusiasm for “global education,” analyzed by Robert Pickus in our April 1987 issue.

No thoughtful person doubts that American students have to learn about things beyond the borders of these United States. A basic understanding of world history and geography; a working grasp of at least one foreign language; a minimal understanding of one non-Western religious and/or cultural tradition-these should all be elements of anyone’s basic education in the K-12 years. They ought, ideally, to be complemented by an ability to analyze thoughtfully world politics, and particularly the ideological component in both East/West and North/South relations in the modern world. All of this goes, or should go, without saying. The global education movement is to be welcomed insofar as it continues to press these issues on American educators.

But global educators will be making a fundamental error-in educational theory as well as in civic practice-if they insist (as some seem to do) that education for a global perspective transcends, or precludes, or replaces knowledge about one’s own society, its history, geography, language, and literature. It is ludicrous to think that students who can’t even date the American Civil War (much less intelligently discuss its causes and effects) will be able, through global education, to comprehend the civil war in Nicaragua, or Chad, or Cambodia. Can we realistically expect students who don’t know when their own Constitution was written, and who are blissfully ignorant of the arguments that surrounded its ratification, to understand and be able to participate as adult citizens in debate over, say, the democratic revolution in Latin America and East Asia? How will students who can’t date the First World War (within a half-century!), and who don’t know when their own country entered World War II, participate in even the most rudimentary civic discourse over America’s responsibilities for peace, security, and freedom in the 21st century?

There is a coalition waiting to be born here: between those parents, educators, and public officials who have had enough of the modem mush of social studies and who are demanding a return to the classic curriculum of history, geography, and civics, and those parts of the global education community who understand that particularity and universality aren’t diametrically opposed, but are in fact complementary. Knowledge of one’s own society, in other words, is the precondition to an understanding of, and appreciation for, the society, culture and politics of others. The issue is not either/or. The issue is both/and.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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