Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote in "The Disuniting of America": "History is to the nation . . . as memory is to the individual. An individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost, not knowing where he has been or where he is going, so a nation denied a conception of its past will be disabled in dealing with its present and future."
Professor Stephen Bertman of the University of Windsor analyzed this threat in his article titled "Can America Remember Its Past?" which was reprinted in the December 2000 issue of Current magazine.
In a 1990 survey, almost half of college seniors couldn't place the Civil War in the right half-century. More recently, 60 percent of U.S. adults couldn't name the president who ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb, and over 20 percent didn't know where, or even if, the atomic bomb was used. The same people didn't know who America's enemies were during World War II.
In a civics survey, more American teenagers were able to name the Three Stooges than the three branches of the federal government. Many Americans are similarly ignorant about our Constitution — so much so that a third of the people who were asked the origin of the statement, "From each according to his ability and to each according to his need," responded by saying it's from our Bill of Rights.
Bertman says that Americans cannot preserve our free institutions and build a better society if we've forgotten liberty's value and price.
We cannot recognize that liberty is rare, precious and easily lost if we've forgotten the words and meaning of the documents upon which the American experiment was founded. We cannot wisely choose between fighting or not fighting a war if we've forgotten war's human cost and become oblivious to the historical necessity of giving one's life in order to preserve a way of life for others.
If we're ignorant of the historical sacrifices that made our liberties possible, we will be less likely to make the sacrifices again so that those liberties are preserved for future generations. And, if we're ignorant, we won't even know when government infringes on our liberties. Moreover, we'll happily cast our votes for those who'd destroy our liberties.
Thomas Jefferson summed it up best: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
What accounts for American amnesia? Bertman has several explanations that he says have less to do with our educational system than with the nature of today's culture and the kind of civilization America has become.
Among his explanations are: Time is the engine of forgetfulness; mankind's drive for pleasure makes us now-oriented; the rise of science and technology devalues the past and undermines the importance of memory; materialism and affluence produce attitudes whereby what is old, including the past, is regarded as useless and obsolete; and, finally, since our own history is so short, we're especially susceptible to devaluation of it.
I am not sure whether Bertman's explanations accurately diagnose America's amnesia. One thing for sure is that the disease isn't even recognized, much less is a remedy being sought. Our historical amnesia doesn't bode well for our future. As such, it makes a mockery of all the political demagoguery that we hear to justify one government program or another: We want to do it for America's children.