Friday, April 1, 2016
A REPUBLIC, IF YOU CAN KEEP IT, by Shirley Martin
Have you ever watched those “man on the street” clips in which the host asks people questions about American history? Jay Leno used to do his jaywalks in which he posed such questions at random to various people.
Here’s an example: “What did Paul Revere say when the British were coming?”
Repeat: What did Paul Revere say WHEN THE BRITISH WERE COMING?”
Reply: “I don’t know. What did he say?”
(The story of Paul Revere’s ride may be apocryphal, but it is–or should be–so deeply ingrained in the American psyche, that one should be able to answer the question without hesitation.)
Another question: “What country did we break away from during the American Revolution?”
How about this question: “What do you think about Benghazi?”
Here's another example, one that prompted this article. The host asked this question of a young man who appeared to be in his early twenties.
"Who was the first president?"
Answer: A look of perplexity and no response.
It’s not only American history in which so many people are lacking knowledge. One cable news host stood outside a movie theater where a Jurassic Park movie was being shown.
Here are a couple questions and replies.
“How many people do you think the dinosaurs killed?”
Reply: Two-hundred thousand.”
“When do you think the dinosaurs disappeared?”
It may be that these answers were meant as a joke, but the responders didn't give the impression that they were joking.
Decades ago, at a time of much discord in the United States, the Miami Herald hired a journalist from Australia. He obtained a copy of the Declaration of Independence and showed it randomly to people on the streets of Miami. When he showed it to an older couple, the wife said, "We don't go in for that sort of thing." And a policeman's reply:"Just move along. We don't want any trouble here."
It’s obvious from these replies that many people have no concept of basic history or the passage of time. One wonders what sort of history is taught–or isn’t taught–in American schools.
Years ago, Lynne Cheney, wife of the former Vice President, embarked on a program to
patriotize (my word) American history textbooks. She failed. One example of what she encountered was a history textbook that devoted six pages to Marilyn Monroe and three sentences to George Washington.
In contrast, my American history textbook from college spent nine pages on the Constitutional Convention, with no pictures except a map. All the rest was pure text. Granted, one example here was a high school textbook and the other a college book, but six pages on Marilyn Monroe is a bit much, and only three sentences on George Washington is a disgrace.
Just what sort of American history are we teaching–or not teaching-- in high school and college? Many young people have no idea when the Civil War was fought. They confuse the American Revolution with the French and Indian War.
Our Founding Fathers knew that a well-informed citizenry was necessary in order to maintain our democracy. But today many Americans are ill-informed and have no idea of our history or our government.
In 1787, when the Constitutional Convention had completed its task and had created one of the greatest documents ever known to man, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the convention had devised. The sage Founding Father replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
But can we keep it?
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