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Recover our ‘national memory’ |

Recover our ‘national memory’

| Sunday, December 23, 2001 12:00 a.m

PRINCETON, N.J. – Two hundred twenty-five Christmases ago, history was being made around here. And recently Lynne Cheney – no disrespect to Dick, but she is the really indispensable Cheney – came here to advocate teaching history more extensively and more wisely than we currently do.

She spoke at the new James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, named after the Princetonian who was the most acute thinker among the Founders. Cheney stressed that events around Christmas 1776 demonstrate ”that this nation was not inevitable.”

General Washington, commanding ill-fed, ill-clad and barely trained forces against the world’s mightiest power, had been in retreat, as he would be much of the war. By Christmas Night 1776 he desperately needed a victory and got one with the surprise attack on Trenton.

After the battle, he recrossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, but returned to near Trenton Dec. 30. Three days later General Cornwallis, who would surrender to Washington at Yorktown in 1781, advanced with superior numbers from Princeton toward Trenton. Washington circled around to Princeton, where he won a second victory, largely by the example of his personal bravery in the teeth of enemy gunfire.


When history is taught at all nowadays, often it is taught as the unfolding of inevitabilities – of vast, impersonal forces. The role of contingency in history is disparaged, so students are inoculated against the ”undemocratic” notion that history can be turned in its course by great individuals. Such a portrayal of history cannot survive acquaintance with the American Revolution, or indeed with Washington’s life: The human story would have had different contours if the bullets that sliced through his clothing during the French and Indian War had struck him.

Cheney recalled a 1999 survey of college seniors at 55 elite colleges, from Princeton to Stanford, which revealed that only 22 percent knew that the words ”government of the people, by the people, for the people” are from the Gettysburg Address. Forty percent could not place the Civil War in the second half of the 19th century. Only 44 percent could place Lincoln’s presidency in the period 1860-1880. Fifty-nine percent thought Reconstruction was about repairing the physical damage done by the Civil War. Twenty-five percent thought the pilgrims signed the Magna Carta on the Mayflower. More than half thought John Marshall was the author of Dred Scott decision (1857), or Brown v. Board of Education (1954) , or Roe v. Wade (1973). Sixty-three percent did not know the Battle of the Bulge was in World War II. To the question of who commanded American forces at Yorktown, the most frequent answer was Ulysses S. Grant.

Such questions should not be difficult for high school seniors. But at the time of the survey, none of the 55 colleges and universities required a course in American history. And students could graduate from 78 percent of them without taking any history course.


One result of this is the ongoing attenuation of national memory, which means, in the long run, the dilution of nationality itself. In the short run, its concrete consequences include a dangerous inability, as at present, to put events in perspective.

Owen Harries, editor emeritus of The National Interest quarterly, rejects the idea that Sept. 11 ushered in a new epoch in world history. This ”nonsense,” he says, reflects ”the difficulty intellectuals habitually have in distinguishing between the state of their minds and the state of the world.” And it reflects what has been called ”the parochialism of the present,” which Harries says is ”a condition resulting from a combination of ignorance of history and an egotistical insistence on exaggerating the importance of events that more or less directly involve oneself. Horrifying and atrocious as the acts of terror were, it should be remembered that they happened at a time when people who experienced the Somme and Verdun, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, are still alive.”

Cheney says one reason for national memory loss is that there is little professional incentive for professors to teach general American history courses. ”Advancement in academia comes from publishing, and there is little market in academic journals for articles on subjects that are broadly conceived.” Academic laurels go to authors of specialized articles, who prefer to teach specialized courses, so general education is slighted.

Fortunately, the publishing phenomenon of this year, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, suggests there is an unquenchable hunger for the telling of America’s story by focusing on great individuals. Fortunately, because as Madison said, in words inscribed on a Princeton building, ”a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

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