This essay is adapted from Toward a More Perfect Union, by Timothy S. Goeglein
(Fidelis Publishing, 208 pages, $26.00.)

The Perils of Historical Ignorance

A while back, I came across an interesting, and disturbing, article written by the personal physician to the late David McCullough, a noted historian and author. The article was entitled, “What’s Keeping David McCullough from Sleeping.”

McCullough was the award-winning author of books on Harry S. Truman, John Adams, the building of the Panama Canal, and many other historical leaders and events. He was the recipient of several of the top English-language literature awards, including the Pulitzer Prize (twice) and the National Book Award, and also the National Medal of Freedom.

Then in his 80s, McCullough came to his doctor complaining of insomnia, a common issue with people in his age group. When his physician asked McCullough what was keeping him up at night, he responded, “I have to tell you—part of it is worrying about what is happening in our country.”

Writing about the conversation, his physician says, “Every day, as [McCullough] reads the papers, it seems as if leaders are taking positions based on politics—and have forgotten about history. They are unaware of the past, and uninterested in how they will be remembered in the future.”

This should be keeping us all up at night. This disregard of history from the leading voices of our time is the result of decades of neglect of history and civics at all levels of our educational system.

I had the honor of meeting with McCullough twice when I served in the White House. During one of those meetings, we had an extensive conversation about his deep concern about America’s illiteracy, a concern that only increased within him over the succeeding years.

If history is taught in the United States, the version of history given greatly distorts and defames the motives and truth about those who shaped our country, resulting in Americans pitted against each other, rather than living together in harmony. As a result, our very republic becomes increasingly wobbly as it struggles to remain standing while lurching from one cultural crisis to another.

John Moore/Getty Images

Profound Ignorance

The problem extends far beyond our leaders. Survey after depressing survey documents how woefully uninformed American citizens are about our nation’s history and freedoms.

For example, a 2009 survey of Oklahoma public high school students found, when faced with 10 questions drawn from the U.S. citizenship test all legal immigrants must take to become citizens, students floundered. Only one in four could correctly name George Washington as the first president of the United States. Only 10 percent of students knew there are nine justices on the Supreme Court, and only 29 percent knew the president headed the executive branch of government. Only 3 percent of students were able to answer six out of the 10 questions—the passing score for the U.S. citizenship test.

These high school students from 2009 are now entering their 30s. They are casting votes, rallying, and even running for and holding political office—all without having even a basic grasp of how our system of government works.

This is not a new problem. A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) surveyed more than 2,500 Americans and found only half of adults could name the three branches of government. Only 36 percent of college graduates could do so. Eighteen percent of students tested could not name a single right or freedom guaranteed under the First Amendment and only 54 percent could correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange, and control goods and services. The highest performing school on the civics test administered by ISI was Harvard University, the so-called “gold standard” of American academia. Harvard scored 69.56 percent—that is a D+, a failing grade.

Another survey from 2009, this one conducted by the American Revolution Center, found more Americans could correctly identify Michael Jackson as the singer of the songs “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” than could identify the Bill of Rights as part of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, more than half of the people surveyed attributed the quote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” to George Washington, Thomas Paine, or then-president Barack Obama. It is in fact a quote from Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto.
Josiah Bunting of the National Civic Literary Board said of the survey, “This [. . .] provides stark evidence that American citizens of the 21st century are increasingly—sadly, deplorably—ignorant of their legacy, their political and constitutional birthright of the 18th century.”

Ten years later, things have not improved. A 2018 survey done by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation investigated the civic and historical knowledge of people in all 50 states and found only 53 percent were able to earn a passing grade in U.S. history. Eighty-five percent could not identify the year the U.S. Constitution was written. Even more alarmingly, one in four people did not know freedom of speech was guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

Ignorance is not confined to civics—it extends to history as well. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed did not know which states comprised the original 13 colonies; 37 percent believed Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb; only 24 percent knew colonists fought the Revolutionary War over unjust taxation; and 12 percent believed Dwight Eisenhower led the military in the American Civil War (30 years before he was born!). Finally, while most managed to identify the cause of the Cold War, two percent said climate change caused the Cold War!

While one may ask, “Does it really affect someone’s day-to-day life if she knows whether Thomas Edison (the correct answer) or Benjamin Franklin invented the light bulb?,” the truth is ignorance of history—including historical details—is isolating. When we do not know the stories behind the things that make up our daily lives—things as disparate and dear to our society as light bulbs, the American flag, the interstate highway system, freedom of speech and association—we forget what labor and effort those things cost our forebears. We do not value them. And when we cease to value things, we stand to lose them.

But sadly, such ignorance is pervasive. In 2017 the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found half of all college graduates did not know how long the terms of their representatives and senators were, and 43 percent did not know the First Amendment gave them freedom of speech. A full third could not identify any rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. This is not surprising, because in a survey of more than one thousand liberal arts colleges, only 18 percent included a course in U.S. history or government as part of their graduation requirement.

There is also a push to exclude military history; whereas 85 percent of history departments used to include a war or diplomatic historian, now less than half feature such a scholar. Tami Davis Biddle, who teaches at the U.S. Army War College, says the decline in war studies and military history in U.S. universities has come about because, “Unfortunately, many in the academic community assume that military history is simply about powerful men—mainly white men—fighting each other and/or oppressing vulnerable groups.”

Biddle urges faculty and students alike to put aside this false assumption for the good of society. She writes, “Military history ought to be a vital component of a liberal education, one that prepares students to be informed and responsible citizens.” How can we possibly hope to avoid wars in the future—or, if necessary, win wars thrust upon us by enemies—if we do not know anything about the wars of our past?

Even when students can study history or civics, the education is paltry. A RAND Corporation survey from 2019 found just 32 percent of K-12 teachers considered “knowledge of facts”—such as of the American Revolution—to be “absolutely essential” to social studies, dead last on a list of 12 other items including being “tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves” and even being “activists who challenge the status quo.” In 2020, RAND found most social studies teachers felt they were not “well prepared to support students’ civic development.” At least teachers are aware of their own shortcomings in teaching history and civics.

We are now several decades deep in this mire of historical and civic ignorance, and we are beginning to see the political and social ramifications. Our elected leaders no longer know the basics of the government they work within.

For instance, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), seen as an enlightened heroine by progressives and their allies in the media, could not name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) when asked in an interview. She incorrectly stated that the three branches of the federal government are the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. This is a member of Congress, who does not even know the basics of the Constitution she has sworn to protect!

The same ISI study that gave Harvard a D+ in civics studies also surveyed elected officials and made some distressing discoveries. Thirty percent of elected officials did not know the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” comes from the Declaration of Independence. Forty-three percent had no idea how the Electoral College worked, with one in five claiming it trained “those aspiring for higher political office” or “was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates.” I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these elected officials tried to place a bet on the Electoral College’s football team.

iStock/Getty Images

Nature Abhors a Vacuum

This collective ignorance has led to a collapse of civil discourse. We have no shared language, which makes it impossible to have meaningful discussions about difficult topics. The loss of shared language is so complete that many Americans either do not recognize or do not appreciate the words of our founding documents—words that, regardless of how well they have been implemented, represented a new standard for human rights and political dignity.

In The Life of Reason, a sweeping study of how human imagination and reason work together to bring order from chaos, the philosopher George Santayana wrote one of his most famous lines: “Those who can’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Santayana recognized that a historical sense—a grounding in what has come before—is essential, both on an individual level and on a societal level, to bring civilization and order from the chaos of our perceptions and passions. If we have no historical sense, we are swept along by events and dominated by our reactions to those events. We cannot view events in context; we cannot balance our perceptions with awareness of what may be happening beyond our perceptions. And as a result, we get caught in the same vicious cycles that have brought down civilizations for the past 10,000 years.

That is exactly what is happening in America: we are repeating the mistakes of other great civilizations that collapsed from within. As Jarrett Stepman of the Heritage Foundation warns: “We don’t want to be trapped by the past, but we do want to learn from it in order to avoid repeating past mistakes and build a better future. As citizens, knowledge of the past and of civics is crucial. Lacking such knowledge is unhealthy for a free country, and even dangerous, given how bad political life can become.”

He then brings up another issue that will be the main focus of this book, writing, “One of the biggest problems today is that we often focus on tearing down our history rather than learning from it.” His statement is a perfect description of the current state of domestic affairs.

As many have pointed out, one of the main causes in the deterioration of our national discourse has been the decline in the teaching of history and civics, or when it is taught, it is done so in a distorted manner. Nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of civics and history education, radical activists are using that space to indoctrinate our children into their dangerous worldview.

When there is no historical context to draw upon, no shared history, and no understanding of how government works, they become easy prey for demagogues—from the Left and the Right alike. They become tools to be exploited for a certain agenda.

Throw into this mix social media, which enables personal opinions, on the Left and the Right, to be perceived as facts and misinformation to spread to an ignorant populace, and suddenly we’re all drinking a toxic brew dividing our nation into various tribes all pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. There is no room for civilized disagreement.

A lack of knowledge, combined with overheated discourse, leads to a lack of nuance and empathy. This produces a mindset that everyone is guilty until proven innocent and can only be proven innocent based on the terms of the tribe—whether it is a tribe on the Left or the Right.

That is the opposite of the way American jurisprudence was structured. Due process, for the most part, no longer exists in the hearts and minds of the American public. People believe if you do not agree with them, you are guilty of perpetuating “systemic injustice,” and justice demands you be silenced. You must be canceled: not allowed to speak your mind on any topic until the ruling tribe decrees you have appropriately repented of your alleged sins and are no longer canceled.

This mindset has led to mobs destroying or defacing statues, activists rewriting history to fit the narratives of the various tribes, and public figures vilifying patriotism and national pride.

Instead of celebrating our freedoms and working together to solve our problems, our current culture is tying us up in rhetorical straitjackets. If our republic is going to survive, we must encourage robust debate, not discourage it. The ability to freely discuss issues from different perspectives is a crucial sign of a healthy and vibrant society. But a robust debate requires both sides to be fully engaged and equipped with the historical and logical arguments to make their cases. When one side—or both—has no historical or logical arguments, and only bases its view on emotion, there can be no debate. Without a debate, a society starts an accelerating slide into chaos. And in our society, one side is often not even allowed to speak in the first place.

Karl Mondon/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Sleepless Nights and Riots

It is no wonder David McCullough suffered from insomnia near the end of his life. All this causes some sleepless nights for me as well. I cannot help but hear the prophetic words of President Dwight Eisenhower from his 1953 inaugural address and realize they increasingly ring true: “A people that values its privileges above its principles, soon loses both.” We have forgotten our principles while exalting our privileges, but without principles to serve as a foundation, we will eventually lose our privileges.

We had a perfect example of how this played out from the summer of 2020. After police confrontations in various cities left several blacks dead, radical left-wing mobs seized upon the tragedies to riot, destroying small businesses, vandalizing stores and public streets, and burning police vehicles. They also continued an ongoing campaign of vandalizing or toppling historical statues and monuments. On a more frightening scale, the “woke” Left exerted immense pressure against these historical symbols, forcing public officials to remove them and erase the memories of those who founded America or played important roles in our history—without any knowledge of that history.

This mob warfare against our past has gone far beyond the symbols of the Old Confederacy to include memorials of those who stood against injustice. For instance, rioters in northern California toppled a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the military leader who led the anti-slavery North to victory in the American Civil War.

Grant led postwar efforts to provide and protect civil rights, such as the right to vote, for recently freed black Americans. He signed legislation to clamp down on white-supremacist terrorism in the South.

At his funeral, Grant was eulogized by black antislavery leader Frederick Douglass, who said Grant was, “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.”

But because at one point Grant was “gifted” a slave—whom he quickly freed because he believed slavery to be repugnant—he must be erased from history, even though history shows he devoted much of his life to ending slavery and protecting the rights of black Americans.

Mobs toppled or vandalized statues of Francis Scott Key, the writer of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions in the 1700s who worked for racial reconciliation and spoke out in defense of Native Americans.

Protesters in Philadelphia damaged a statue of Matthias Baldwin, who fought for the abolition of slavery, founded a school for black children, and advocated for blacks to have the right to vote—all in the early 1800s, well before the Civil War. In Boston, vandals attacked the monument commemorating the 54th Regiment Massachusetts, the first volunteer all-black Civil War regiment, which was commanded by abolitionist and equal-rights champion Robert Gould Shaw.

Succumbing to intense pressure, the New York Museum of Natural History removed a statue of Theodore Roosevelt. The statue depicts Roosevelt sitting astride his horse with a Native American and black on either side, which critics say furthers a narrative of racism and colonization.

Vandals defaced the statue of Winston Churchill in London on D-Day, some of whom later admitted they were totally ignorant of the fact Churchill helped lead the Allies in stopping Adolf Hitler—and his genocide of European Jews.

And, of course, statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and others of Theodore Roosevelt have been targeted also.

It seems like we should soon expect elected officials to take dynamite to Mt. Rushmore! And in fact, there are now groups advocating for Mt. Rushmore’s demise.

Kaliningrad, Russia: Karl Marks. Getty Images

Critical Race Theory

Now, I want to assert that I am a Lincoln man and a Christian who firmly believes all people are made in the image of God—imago Dei —and deserve utmost dignity and respect. The truth is, disdain for human dignity—toward various groups—was America’s original sin. Its stain continues to mar our nation more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln and the North was victorious in the Civil War.

Americans of color continue to struggle to receive equal opportunities in many ways, for a huge variety of reasons, many tied to the breakdown of the family caused by governmental policies that have harmed, rather than helped them rise from poverty. As a Christian, I see this is a deep problem and one all Americans must work together to resolve. No one should feel as if he or she is less significant or less valuable because of skin color.

Yet indiscriminately destroying our history will not bring justice to our future. This dismantling of history strips us of the models we can look to for encouragement and inspiration moving forward. Remember the Ulysses S. Grant statue I wrote about earlier? Grant dedicated his life to two things: unifying America and righting racial injustices. Should he be erased because he, by the fact of his existence, was implicated however briefly in the evil system he sought to end? Or should we look to him as an example of how to respond to evil systems: with force and courage, bringing all our energy to bear to bring justice whenever and wherever we can? Grant went out and physically labored in the fields alongside his father-in-law’s slaves, seeking to understand them. He freed the one slave he was given. Throughout his life, he became more and more stalwart on the issue of racial equality and justice.

This is not a story we should erase—rather, it is one we should magnify, because it shows each of us how to respond to injustice and evil. Erasing this story leaves us helpless and divided, with fewer ideas of how to bring peace and justice.

When, in a misguided attempt to erase evil, we erase history, we give evil a stronger hold. This is because history—the good and the bad—is what gives us a sense of meaning and of direction. We look to history to understand where we are today; our cultural and social wounds make no sense without history. Without knowing where those wounds came from, we have no hope of healing them. Instead, we face fragmentation and division in a fractured, meaningless society.

The dismantling and destruction of statues and monuments we are witnessing is symbolic of the dismantling of meaning. Instead of e pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”), we have become the exact opposite: we’re destroying our only chance of unity and allowing individual whims to trump collective good. Instead of a nation, we are disintegrating into a conglomerate of tribes warring with each other to protect selfish interests.

What is fueling this movement is “critical race theory,” which I will discuss throughout this book. But to understand this so-called movement, it needs to be defined first.

The best explanation of critical race theory I have read came from Christopher Rufo, founder and director of Battlefront, a public policy research center devoted to refuting it. In a lecture at Hillsdale College, he said, “In explaining critical race theory, it helps to begin with a brief history of Marxism. Originally, the Marxist Left built its political program on the theory of class conflict. Marx believed that the primary characteristic of industrial societies was the imbalance of power between capitalists and workers. The solution to that imbalance, according to Marx, was revolution: the workers would eventually gain consciousness of their plight, seize the means of production, overthrow the capitalist class, and usher in a new socialist society.”

Thus, critical race theory is the latest salvo by the far Left to deceive and divide Americans to achieve their ultimate goal of a socialist society. Rufo continues, “During the 20th century, a number of regimes underwent Marxist-style revolutions, and each ended in disaster. Socialist governments in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Cuba, and elsewhere racked up a body count of nearly 100 million of their own people. They are remembered for their gulags, show trials, executions, and mass starvations. In practice, Marx’s ideas unleashed man’s darkest brutalities.”

He goes on to state, Western Marxists came to the realization “workers’ revolutions” would not work in countries with a much higher standard of living. Therefore, to achieve their dream of socialism, they had to create divisions by class and race. That led to the creation of critical race theory, created in the 1990s, which Rufo says was built on the intellectual framework of identity-based Marxism. While ignored by the greater culture for several decades, it slowly became injected into government agencies, public school systems, teacher training programs, and corporate human resources departments in the form of diversity training programs, human resources modules, public policy frameworks, and school curricula. All this was designed to turn Americans against each other, and especially against the principle of ordered liberty upon which our country was founded.

If this movement continues unabated, we will truly become “a house divided against itself.” Lincoln spoke those words in his famous 1858 speech before the Republican Convention, which he took from Jesus Christ, and they prophetically describe our current national condition.

Sarah Reingewirtz/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Reeducating Ourselves

If Americans want to fight our heritage and unity it will require a proactive approach, rather than a reactive one, and it must start in our homes. Those who seek to erase our history and heritage often advance their agenda through state and federal programs while many Americans are totally unaware that this is happening. Too many parents still trust their local public schools to teach history adequately and accurately. They may see problems in other schools but are in denial about the problems in their own schools. Or they may become aware of what is happening but decide they do not want to rock the boat. For many ordinary Americans, the price of taking on radical activists, especially in the Internet age, is simply too high.

But the boat is full of holes, and it is carrying us to deep and dangerous waters. It not only needs to be rocked; it needs to be flipped over. Right now, we’re still in the shallows. We can still wade back to shore. But that will not be true for much longer. The boat is going to go down eventually. If we wait, if we continue to be in denial and to say everything is fine, it will take us and our children down with it.

We can no longer live in denial about what is being taught to our children about our nation’s history—as parents are beginning to see with the advancement of critical race theory.

Christopher Rufo shares several examples of how critical race theory is playing out in public schools. He tells about an elementary school in Cupertino, California, that forced first-graders to “deconstruct” their racial and sexual identities, and then rank themselves according to their “power and privilege.”

He also shares about how a Springfield, Missouri, middle school forced teachers to locate themselves on an “oppression matrix,” which demands straight, white, English-speaking, Christian males must atone for their “privilege” and for engaging in “covert white supremacy.”

And, finally, in Philadelphia, an elementary school forced fifth-grade students to celebrate “Black communism” and simulate a Black Power rally to free 1960s radical Angela Davis from prison, where she was once held on charges of murder.

Critical race theory is not a new phenomenon, and it preys upon the historical ignorance of Americans. And while many parents are beginning to awaken to what is being taught, there are still too many who are trusting the public schools to educate their children and are blissfully unaware of the indoctrination they are receiving instead.

Besides speaking out, parents are going to have to go the extra mile not only to educate their children but to equip them to see the agenda behind critical race theory. Thus, if our children are in public schools, we must have regular, intentional conversations with them about the true story of America’s founders and founding principles, and how those principles have led to greater freedom and respect for human dignity. These conversations can happen around the dinner table, on family road trips, or when you’re out running errands. But they must happen, and they must happen frequently. Children are being told lies every day at school; those lies must be combated every day with truth.

You must know, this will inevitably lead to conflict for your children in the classroom, and you should support them with ardent prayer and unwavering defense.

It is also essential that parents review the textbooks and other curriculum being used by their children’s schools. It is up to parents to make sure they know what lies their children face. And parents must also prepare their children to face opposition if they stand up for the truth in their classroom. Thus, as parents, we must educate ourselves accurately on America’s history to discern truth from folly.

Equipping your children with an accurate depiction of our nation’s history and heritage, given the disinformation or lack of information they are receiving, requires a great deal of effort and time. And sadly, even young Christian men and women are lacking in this area as well.

Most young people are not going to be fortunate enough to attend elite programs for conservative and Christian law students. Many will never hear anything but the progressive narrative. In other words, most will never hear the truth unless we, as people of faith who love our God-given freedoms and the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our nation was founded, are willing to take the time and energy to educate them.

But since this problem is generational and goes back beyond the current generation of school children to the educational and historical bankruptcy of the past seven decades, we must do the hard work of reeducating ourselves on our history and heritage. We must build our own foundations of knowledge about our country; otherwise, how can we teach the next generation? It is not enough to merely refute disinformation. We must offer true and documented information as an alternative.

Rufo concluded his speech with these words:

[I]n addition to pointing out the dishonesty of the historical narrative on which critical race theory is predicated, we must promote the true story of America—a story that is honest about injustices in American history, but that places them in the context of our nation’s high ideals and the progress we have made towards realizing them. Genuine American history is rich with stories of achievements and sacrifices that will move the hearts of Americans—in stark contrast to the grim and pessimistic narrative pressed by critical race theorists.
Above all, we must have courage—the fundamental virtue required in our time. Courage to stand and speak the truth. Courage to withstand epithets. Courage to face the mob. Courage to shrug off the scorn of the elites. When enough of us overcome the fear that currently prevents so many from speaking out, the hold of critical race theory will begin to slip. And courage begets courage. It’s easy to stop a lone dissenter; it’s much harder to stop 10, 20, 100, 1,000, 1,000,000, or more who stand up together for the principles of America. Truth and justice are on our side. If we can muster the courage, we will win.

That is what this book is for: to offer an alternative narrative, one grounded in history and facts, one that does not shy away from the hard truths but also does not go out of its way to destroy and denigrate. I seek to lay out that foundation, starting with what was bequeathed to us by our nation’s founders, and then offer suggestions for how we can restore that foundation from the relentless attacks from liberal academics and others who are either ignorant of our past or disdainful of it. For the future of our nation, this is a battle in which we, who believe America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, must engage—so future generations will truly understand and appreciate the freedoms we enjoy.

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