America’s Historical Illiteracy

A Review of The Future of History, by John Lukacs

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain a child always.

— Cicero

In 2008 Common Core published a study by Frederick M. Hess which examined the knowledge of history and literature possessed by 17 year-old high school students in the United States. The results were depressing. Less than half of the 1,200 students questioned were able to identify the Renaissance or even the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. Only 50% could explain why the Federalist Papers were written and fewer than half could correctly identify the half century in which the Civil War was fought. More than one fourth of these students believed that Christopher Columbus sailed for the New World sometime after 1750.

As Mr. Hess notes, these questions are “basic,” by which he really means “simple.” Yet, these 17-year olds recorded an aggregate grade of 73 on the history questions and an aggregate grade of 57 on the literature questions for a cumulative overall grade of 67 percent — a grade of D.

“Seventeen-year olds with at least one college-educated parent (and by this they mean a parent who, at least, has received an associate’s degree) scored at least one full letter grade, and sometimes almost two, above those without a college-educated parent on over 40 percent of the history questions,” That information is testimony to the many historical illiterates who are raising America’s children these days. But was it ever any different?

I was one of those 17-year-old historical illiterates back in 1965. But, after four years of military service and maturation, I was fortunate to study history under the tutelage of Sergei Vasilievich Utechin at the Pennsylvania State University. Not only was he an extraordinarily warm human being and a “Renaissance man,” who seemed to have read everything under the sun — or at least everything written in the four, five or six languages at his command — he also was extremely demanding of graduate students aspiring to become historians.1

Professor Utechin devoted much time to ensuring that his graduate students thoroughly understood the “scholarly method.” Not only did he insist that we understand the difference between secondary studies and primary sources, he also demanded that we demonstrate mastery in the treatment of such studies and sources. To that end, his graduate students were required to enroll in his seminar devoted to secondary studies (historiography) and then in a subsequent seminar devoted to source criticism (which he termed “fontology,” “istochnikovedenie,” in Russian).

A historiographical investigation is nothing more than the critical examination of virtually everything written about a subject. Of course that is an enormous task for someone who doesn’t read. But, if, for example, a person was really curious about a specific event during World War II and genuinely desired to know what actually happened, he would read everything historians had written about that event and then determine whether they satisfactorily answered his question.

If they did not, or if they disagreed, then that curious person would be obligated to undertake a critical examination of the actual sources used by those historians — diplomatic cables, memoirs, state documents, letters from statesmen, etc. Although different techniques might be employed to critique these sources, the objective always would be to assure that they really are what they purport to be. (I investigated the problems one counters with memoirs as sources and presented my findings to the seminar.)

If the sources were what they purported to be, then the budding historian had to decide whether these sources provided information or a perspective not properly handled by the so-called experts. Occasionally, new sources are discovered that color or challenge existing sources, In each of these circumstances, you — the curious and diligent person applying the scholarly method to answer to a specific question — would be justified in providing your own, presumably groundbreaking, interpretation of that event.

Some might ask: “Who has the time to do all of that?” My answer would be the same one Henry David Thoreau gave nearly 150 years ago: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them”Actually the laboring man has not the leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine. How can he remember his ignorance – which his growth requires – who has so often to use his knowledge?”

Consider the question of whether there is any truth to the claim, made by to so-called “birthers,” that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate President because he wasn’t born in the United States.

First, you would look at the claims and counter claims swirling around the issue in an attempt to weigh the evidence they present. Presumably you would find that the birthers actually have no serious evidence to support their allegations, just suspicions that the supposedly actual evidence proving President Obama’s birth in Hawaii — his birth certificate, the announcement of his birth in two newspapers — are fabrications.

Being a sane person, your first impulse might be to ask: “Aren’t these “birthers” the same low grade intellects who believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks on World Trade Center on 9/11? Didn’t these people vote for George W. Bush, the worst president in American history? Aren’t they the same lunkheads who — having never taken a modern college level course in biology –nevertheless feel competent to dispute the theory of evolution. In a word, aren’t these folks simply the dregs of the dregs in white America?

Fortunately, no sane historian would prematurely jump to such conclusions. Instead he would move past the swirling conjecture and name calling, in order to turn to the actual sources, in order to decide the issue.

When he does, he not only finds that, while Barack Obama’s birth certificate is confidential under Hawaii state law, the “certificate of live birth” put out by the state is considered a proof of citizenship by the State Department and, thus, sufficient for obtaining a passport. When the historian examines the microfilm of the August 13, 1961 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser (as well as the relevant edition of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin), he sees that the hospital notified each paper of baby Obama’s birth, just as hospitals do with local newspapers in every part of our country. Thus historians must demand that birthers explain precisely why those newspaper reports are not what they purport to be.

But the capable historian might also find additional sources — in this case, U.S. law, yes, U.S. law — that demonstrates that the debate about whether President Obama was born in Hawaii (which has been proven) or in Kenya (as some birthers contend) has been bogus and the hobgoblin of small (probably racist and hateful) minds from the outset.

Thanks to Donald Freedman, who looked at U.S. law, we know that the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated: “The children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond the sea, or outside the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural-born citizens of the United States.” Another U.S. law, passed in 1795, stipulates: “”the children of citizens of the United States born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States, shall be considered as citizens of the United States.”

Each of these laws applied only to foreign-born children whose father was a citizen of the United States. But in 1934, Congress changed the law to insure that citizenship automatically passed to children born to any mother who was a U.S. citizen.2

Barack Obama’s mother was a U.S. citizen, thus Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen. End of story.

As with most Americans, our birthers are historical illiterates. But, beyond their gross stupidity — what historian Jacques Barzun labeled “the menace of the untaught” — I suspect that many also are poor human beings. Although Donald Trump belongs to this intellectually motley crowd of birthers, he is the exception, because, he qualifies as a “learned ignoramus.”

A learned ignoramus? Yes, in 1930, Jose Ortega y Gasset published his classic work, The Revolt of the Masses. Chapter 12 is titled “The Barbarism of “Specialisation,” and wickedly describes the “learned ignoramus,” and thus Mr. Trump.

According to Ortega, “Previously, men could be divided into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,’ and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.”

Consequently, “In politics, in art, in social usages, in other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of — this is the paradox — specialists in those matters.”

I can’t think of a better description of the millionaire blowhard birther, Donald Trump.

Ortega’s classic also describes quite accurately the swamp of ignorance drowning America today: “Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown to-day in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,’ and of course, behind them, the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on. That state of “not listening,’ of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of mass-man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified people.” (p. 112-113)

In his rambling and disordered new book published today, The Future of History, the esteemed historian, John Lukacs, credits Americans with a large and growing interest in history, but is suspicious of their capability to act like historians. “Will the current appetite for history eventually bring about a deepening of historical understanding — even when the actual teaching of history has been diminishing? Well — with all the somber evidences to the contrary — I at least hope so.” (p. 78)

When one pulls segments from different parts of his haphazard book and puts them in chronological order, he discovers a very powerful critique of America’s historical illiteracy. First, Mr. Lukacs notes Tocqueville’s observation — in his second volume of Democracy in America – that “the greatest defect in democratic character” is “the habit of inattention.” (p. 167)

Second, at the turn of the twentieth century, when high schools and colleges across the nation were beginning to teach history, American progressives turned history into a social science, which meant emphasizing its economic and practical aspects in support of current day problems. It wasn’t the genuine study of history.

Third, around 1920, advertising and propaganda were employed to manage the “publicity governing the opinions and the sentiments of majorities” (p. 32) Historically illiterate; Americans were powerless to think through such advertising and propaganda. Mr. Lukacs worries today about how publicity is manipulated by wealthy and powerful minorities to create or control majorities. Think of the Koch brothers and “Americans for Prosperity.”

Fourth, came the penetration of a pictorial rather than verbal “culture,” which undermined our ability to use our imaginations and reduced our attention spans. Both maladies have been abetted by the “fast-shrinking habit of reading among students.” (p. 54) Mr. Lukacs calls it “a new kind of barbarism” and in this observation he would find support from the great historian, Jacques Barzun, who suggested that we are entering a new Dark Age.

Fifth: beginning about 1970 the teaching of history in American high schools and universities was reduced. (p. 64)

Sixth: Soon after 1970, “the majority of students in American colleges were choosing economics or business as their professional specialty, or “major,’ despite the questionable value of the teaching and content of such courses.” (p. 66) As the New York Times recently reported, in “The Default Major: Skating B-School,” most business school educations are a joke. Consider this: “When business students take the GMAT, the entry examination for M.B.A. program, they score lower than students in every other major.” Is it an accident that our leading blowhard ignoramus, Donald Trump, learned such a “trade” in college?

Seventh: “men and women around 2000 began thinking otherwise than their forebears as century before. By this I mean not only the subjects of their thinking but the functioning of their minds.” (p. 67) Readers of Nicholas Carr’s recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, might sympathize. For as Carr writes: “If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.”3

As a graduate student studying history under Professor Utechin, I was required to read the wonderful three-volume study of Russian intellectual history written by statesman, philosopher and historian, Thomas Masaryk. Titled The Spirit of Russia, it sprang from Masaryk’s belief that an analysis of the great novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “is a sound method of studying Russia.”

Thus, notwithstanding the organizational flaws in Mr. Lukacs’s book, The Future of History should be treasured, not only for its depressing observations about the state of history in the United States, but also for its persuasive demonstration that, if history is to endure, it must harness the facts and techniques found in literature and provide meaning like the world’s great novels.

  1. See the obituary of this extraordinary man. []
  2. Daniel Freedman, “Romney to Trump: Obama Doesn’t Need a Birth Certificate.” Forbes, April 12, 2011. []
  3. “Gary Greenberg, “My Monster, My Self,” The Nation, April 4, 2011. []

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.