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Historical amnesia

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When Abraham Lincoln addressed the United States Congress in 1863, he began with these words: "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history." It was a noble sentiment, and perhaps it was true then. But it certainly is not now. We have escaped history, by not teaching it, by ignoring it, by forgetting it and by changing the parts we don’t like.

Yet another report last week confirmed that the teaching of history is becoming history. National test scores showed a marked drop in students’ knowledge, continuing a downward trend that has been going on for decades.

National history knowledge tests show that many high school seniors have no conception of the Bill of Rights, the checks and balances theory that is or used to be the rationale behind the three branches of the United States government, or the election system itself. 50% of high school seniors couldn't say how the United States came into existence, or what the Cold War was. These young people will be voting soon, and some are voting already.

If there is anything worse than not teaching history at all it is teaching fake history, a reassuring, patriotic fairy tale with no social protests, no brutality, no imperial adventures, no bitter race or class conflict, in short no inconvenient truths, and above all nothing that might encourage idealistic students to think for themselves.

Anyone who tries to teach real, serious history is up against movies, television and video games that offer cartoonish versions of the past that pays more attention to costumes than to real events. What every high schooler knows is that people in the past wore funny clothes. This will be our own fate. When people in the future look back on us, if they ever do, it will be through the lens of our mass media. They will know that we too wore funny clothes and will probably call us the TikTok generation.

Perhaps this historical amnesia, passing from generation to generation, is inevitable and not entirely bad. Human history as a whole is unimaginably vast. A person could go mad trying to remember all of it, and nobody does. So we cling to the flickering scraps of the past that have somehow survived in the collective tribal memory, and it could be argued that even those scraps are so horrible that teaching them honestly to young people would be a form of child abuse.

What we remember, what we choose to forget, and how our memories change with time and age are among the great psychological mysteries. Most of us practice a kind of automatic selective forgetting. Any college student facing an exam asks, first: What do I need to remember? Long after we leave college, we unconsciously use the same technique: what do I need to remember? Where I put my car keys: yes. Kings and queens of England in date order: no.

But we live in the flow of time whether we like it or not, and somewhere in that flow is the story of who, what and why we are. If we can’t or won’t remember that story we live in a kind of primal innocence, which is reassuring and pleasant but, like all innocence, dangerous. Cicero wrote: “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child,” and the same may be true of whole nations.

A carefully measured dose of real history, however unpleasant, may help us to grow up.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.