John Stuart Mill wrote, “A portion of mankind may be said to constitute a Nationality if they are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others.” These common sympathies induce people to cooperate with each other more willingly than with foreigners. He gave several possible causes for this affinity. Among them are race, decent, common language or religion and geographical limits. He stated that the strongest of all these causes is the possession of a national history. A knowledge of a national history should result in a common sense of community, common “recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.”
A basic understanding of the history of one’s nation is essential for the continuation of a society. It is what binds a people together. Our knowledge of the past forms a large part of our identity. This knowledge provides a framework for interpreting events that take place in the present. A knowledge of past mistakes or successes can be an invaluable tool for planning for the future. Bertrand Russell described the importance of the study of the past in his essay On History:
Of all the studies by which men acquire citizenship of the intellectual commonwealth, no single one is so indispensable as the study of the past. A knowledge of history is capable of giving to statesmanship, and our daily thoughts, a breadth and scope unattainable by those whose view is limited to the present.
The importance of history has been commented on since ancient times. The Roman orator Cicero remarked, "He who is ignorant of what happens before his birth is always a child." A more modern comment on the importance of a knowledge of the past was provided by columnist Ann Coulter who stated, "If history always begins this morning, the world holds exciting surprises around every corner." Jeffrey Hart explained that, "History is to a civilization what personal memory is to an individual: an essential part of identity and a source of meaning." C.S. Lewis commented, "men without a past are forever children, easily manipulated and enslaved."
Yet the commitment to the study of history is weak in our institutions of higher learning. Harvard historian David Donald provided an example in a 1977 article in the New York Times entitled, "Our Irrelevant History." Donald claimed, "The ‘lessons’ taught by the American past are today not merely irrelevant but dangerous. . . . perhaps my most useful function would be to disenthrall (students) from the spell of history, to help them see the irrelevance of the past, . . . (To) remind them to what a limited extent humans control their own destiny." Donald’s view of history is not unique. It appears to be shared by a large section of the academic community. Worse than the neglect of history is the emphasis placed on the negative aspects of the nation’s history.
Richard Bernstein described in his book, Dictatorship of Virtue, what he learned at the 1987 convention of the American Historical Association. "The unvarying underlying themes were the repressiveness inherent in American life and the sufferings of groups claiming to be victims of that repressiveness. ... The history of the United States was the history of suffering for all but the white establishment."
Commentator Tammy Bruce has remarked that, "the purging of history courses is no accident." The animus toward the teaching of history goes back at least as far as the Enlightenment. Bertrand Barere, a member of the French revolutionary Committee of Public Safety, commented, "All memories of history, all prejudices resulting from community of interest and of origin, all must be renewed in France; we wish only to date from to-day." A knowledge of history fosters prejudices that stand in the way of the universal community desired by the progressives. Author Milans Kundera wrote in his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, "You begin to liquidate a people by taking away its memory. You destroy its books, its culture, its history. And then others write other books for it, give another culture to it, invent another history for it. Then the people slowly begins to forget what it is and what it was." Alexander Solzhenitzyn has stated, "To destroy a people, you must first sever their roots." Tammy Bruce asserted, "The first step for the Intellectual Elite is to unmake and then remake history itself. Smear the Founding Fathers, cast patriotism as jingoistic, and classify the United States as a genocidal nation bent on terrorism." This is also the conclusion of Jim Nelson Black who has asserted, "The game plan of the deconstructionists in the universities has been to eradicate the past and indoctrinate the young men and women of this nation with a new view of society and a radical political ideology. They know a great deal more about Madonna, Ice-T, and the 2 Live Crew than Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms."
This has resulted in a reduced emphasis on history and the near elimination of what might be described as traditional history. One example is the New Jersey Department of Education omitting America’s founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, from the revised version of the state’s history standards. One justification for this omission is that the founding fathers, were "racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, Eurocentric bigots."
What are the consequences of this new interpretation of history? The appalling ignorance of what might be called traditional history has been amply documented by several commentators. A study by Prof. Judith Remy Leder of 100 students at California State University at Fullerton revealed that fewer than half could identify either Geoffrey Chaucer or Dante Alighieri, and 90 per cent could not identify Alexander Hamilton. A study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities of a representative national sample of 7,812 17-year-olds found that less than a third could place the Civil War in its correct half-century and that more than a fifth thought the radio and telephone had been invented since 1950. This caused the study’s co-author, Chester E. Finn Jr., to remark, "We're raising a generation of historical and literary incompetents." A 2001 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation study found that a quarter of American teenagers didn't know what Independence Day is supposed to celebrate.19 A National Assessment of Educational Progress in History survey found that 57 percent of our high school seniors lack a basic understanding of American history.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni: "As we move forward into the 21st century, our future leaders are graduating with an alarming ignorance of their heritage - a kind of collective amnesia - and a profound historical illiteracy which bodes ill for the future of the republic."
As if to emphasize this point, in 1995 vice-president Al Gore commented that the national motto of the United States, "E pluribus Unum," was translated as "Out of one, many" in a speech praising multiculturalism. Vice President Joe Biden claimed, “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn’t just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed.” Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the Judiciary Committee stated, "you know, we have three branches of government: we have a House, the Senate, we have a President, and all three of us are going to have to come together and give some.”