Because Americans Know Little History, Washington DC's Building Visitor Centers. Really.

tags: ignorance

Mr. Knipp is a DC based journalist working as Washington correspondent for a major Asian-based newspaper.

Everyone laughed in 2001 when, at a Washington correspondents’ dinner, President Bush asked the question:  “Is our children learning?’ 

But, bumbling language aside, it’s a good question. In science and technology, there’s no uncertainty that today’s kids are indeed keeping up. They can learn to use virtually any electronic device from a just released laptop, to an iPhone or PC-mounted camcorder in a matter of minutes.

For history, however, the news is not so good. In fact it’s bad. Very bad. I’m not basing this judgment on any detailed academic study or in-depth survey, but merely on what I see and hear almost every day as a resident of Washington DC.

As the national’s capital, the District of Columbia is the beating heart of American history. This city on the Potomac is literally America’s metaphysical attic, both the place where we physically store our most important documents, and the sun-dappled setting we’ve chosen to honor, in bronze and granite and marble, the ideals of the great and the good in American history.

And it’s for that reason, that each year hundreds of thousands of high school kids come here, every spring and every autumn, from Boston and Chicago and Denver, and San Francisco.

It is a statistical fact that we Americans remain in school longer than any other society in history, entering kindergarten at five and often only get catapulted out of academia a full quarter of a century later. Despite that impressive educational marker, whenever I hear young people open their months when visiting Washington, more often than not, they come across sounding like ignoramuses.

Recently, while walking near the wonderfully sprawling open-air monument to President Franklin Roosevelt, I happened to overhear two high school boys who had just been poured out of a bus. They were literally asking themselves why they were visiting this place.

One said to the other:  “So, who’s this 'FDR guy?”  It was painfully obvious that these two real life versions of Dumb & Dumber had never been taught about the Great Depression, and how Roosevelt had helped created a whole raft of innovative social programs to pull this county back to prosperity. Considering that a recent report revealed that many of today’s high school kids think that America fought on the side of Germany during the Second World War, there’s a good chance that these same two bird brains would also have no knowledge about FDR’s central role in defeating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly six out of 10 high school seniors knew so little about their own nation’s history that many are basically historically illiterate.  And things have only gotten worse since then.

Today’s students routinely fail to knowin which century the Civil War was fought, or even why it was fought. Ask a gaggle of high school seniors to explain, even briefly, exactly who any of the following were: Woodrow Wilson, Sam Houston, Emma Lazarua, Jack London, Thomas Paine, Adlai Stevenson, James Baldwin, Ike Eisenhower, John Glenn or Daniel Webster -- and the odds are good that none will know any of them.

Official Washington is now reacting to this distressing situation. No, not by pouring more money into American history education, but by throwing up steel and stone remedial learning centers in the guise of “visitor centers.”

The first one, costing $110 million, opened a year ago at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s charming Potomac River estate just south of the capital.

Decades ago, when high school kids visited Mount Vernon, they had been well briefed by their  teachers about the Great Man, his life story, and how his example of selfless service and his strong personal support of democratic rule set a sterling example for all other presidents to follow.

Today’s visitors seem about as well informed about this American icon as Borat is about America in general.  “Some people,” Emily Dibella, a PR officer at Mount Vernon, told the Washington Post, “think Washington fought in the Civil War.”

Another visitors center will be built at the Vietnam War Memorial. The Memorial itself was designed 25 years ago by the then 21 year old Yale University student Maya Lin. Once controversial, today it is the single most visited destination in Washington, an uncomplicated but stunningly vivid testament to the aching toll of that war, which cost 58,000 American lives.  The trouble is, today, too few people know much about the war itself, hence the 25,000 square foot visitors center which will include a movie theater to explain to visitors what they apparently were never properly taught in schools. The cost:  $100 million, more than ten times the original cost of the memorial itself.

Early this week, I again happened to be strolling on the National Mall, this time crossing between the great Greek barn that is the Lincoln Memorial, and the glinting waters of the Reflecting Pool.

Just as I arrived, a mammoth tour bus pulled up, and a tidal flow of teenagers poured out onto the Mall. As I followed this stream towards the steps of the Reflecting Pool, one of the older boys started to stammer something, some remembered fact perhaps, some ingot of information jarred from a history class? Maybe it was about George Washington? Or perhaps it was to do with Mr. Lincoln, and his crucial role in tying to heal a nation which had been torn tragically apart by the Civil War?  Possibly it was a reference to Martin Luther King’s historic and stirring “I have a dream speech” given on this very spot in 1963?  Alas, it was none of the above.

Finally, with obviously immense effort, the boy managed to pull his thoughts together and utter what contemplation this extraordinary American vista had brought to his agitated adolescence brain.

“Look everybody,” he shouted with glee, “This is where they made that Forrest Gump movie!”

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    More Comments:

    Steven Knipp - 3/3/2008

    John is correct. Mount Vernon is privately owned. But he has apparently completely missed the entire point of my commentary. (Pay attention now, Mr. Maass. Remember, this goes on your permanent record.)

    My commentary had absolutely nothing to do with who pays for the remedial visitor centers or what their quality is. The point of the essay is how abysmally poorly educated our young people are in the subject of history, and what the often tragic consequences can be. Let’s stay focused people!

    John R. Maass - 2/28/2008

    Before the author starts criticizing the "dumb and dumber" kids who visit DC, wouldn't one expect him to get his facts straight in this piece? Mt. Vernon is and always has been in private hands, thus, the money spent on its new, wonderful educational facilities there were not completed at the behest of "official Washington," as he erroneously states.

    Physician, heal thyself!

    John R. Maass - 2/28/2008

    Or is it ignorami?

    Steven Knipp - 2/22/2008

    As a journalist I always welcome reader reactions. Whether positive or negative, I appreciate that they take the time to make their views known.

    But Mr. Freund’s comments are so illogical, that they have no basis in reality.

    Let me take them one at a time. He accuses me of “spying” on the high school seniors mentioned in my commentary. In fact going out to actually talk to real people, hearing what they have to say about their lives, and relaying those views to readers is the core of basic reporting. If you truly believe that this is “spying” I suggest you contact the nearest FBI field office immediately. Alert them to what I do for a living. I will be most amused to hear their reaction.

    Then you accuse me of “slamming” young people for their “alleged ignorance of history.” There is absolutely nothing “alleged” about it; in survey after survey, American young people have been found over and over again to be grossly ignorant of both American history and world history. I cited one such report by the Department of Education in the essay. More recently, a 2006 National Geographic poll found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t even think it’s necessary to know where countries in the news are located. Thus, three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college can even locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map. These are not my opinions, Mr. Freund, these are the hard uncomfortable facts.

    You then appear to take personal offence when I referred to the two high schoolers as “dumb.” Over the years I’ve probably interviewed ten thousand people, of all ages and from all walks of life. From senior political figures, and business tycoons, to sports stars and gangsters, living in dozens of countries from South Africa and Northern Ireland, and Tokyo to Tehran. So I feel rather confident in being able to assess someone’s intelligence. And, so, yes, I found these two lads as willfully dumb as two fence posts.

    Since you never met them, let alone spoke to them at length (as I did), how can you possibly know otherwise?

    Perhaps you view the word “dumb” as needlessly harsh or politically incorrect? Fair enough, you have a right to your view. So let’s call them “intellectual lazy.” Unfortunately, however, whichever word you use, the result remains the same: a very poorly served society. Because millions of these youngsters grow up to vote for “intellectually lazy” presidents just like them.

    You then say that my approach “is nationalist,” because “he regards history as the celebration of heroes.” This is hardly my personal approach. It is merely human nature for countries to celebrate their history through their heroes. This is true whether we’re talking about Washington or Moscow, or Beijing. Which nation do you know of that celebrates its history through its villains? There is even an academic theory which supports this view; you may be aware of it? It’s known as the “great man” theory of history.

    If you go to the Philippines you will find thousands of statures honoring Jose Rizal; but none of Ferdinand Marcos. If you visit Russia, you will find countless statues to the great poet Pushkin, but virtually none of Stalin or Lenin any more.

    How many statues of Richard Nixon do you think exist in the US? I’d be amuse to hear about any (outside the Nixon Library).

    Several years ago, I sat in a junior high school auditorium to observe the final competition of a statewide history contest. On the stage sat a score of nervous students. Before the Q&A could begin, however, we in the audience were told, by the chief organizer (a University of Maryland history professor), in no uncertain terms, that after each answer was given—regardless of whether it was correct or not, that we were to applaud equally.

    In effect, we were being instructed by this history professor that being right or being wrong was to be deemed equally acceptable. The facts did not matter.

    By tradition, we Americans have always been proud to protect the weak and the powerless. But somehow, sadly, this honorable practice has been disastrously distorted to the point where American culture now routinely defends the hapless and the clueless, even when they themselves make no effort to improve.

    And as a direct result of this kind of distorted thinking, in America today, to be wrong is to admit fault. And to admit fault is to accept responsibility. And few Americans now seem willing to accept responsibility for anything.

    So, instead of working more intensely to become more competent, the route which you seem to suggest, Mr. Freund, is to simply take no notice of the deeds of the dim-wits and the nincompoops among us; the way one might ignore drunks at a wedding

    America’s misfortune today is that incompetence has become an infection so widespread that it is considered the norm, and so taken utterly for granted. No one ever gets fired for being incompetent in America. And when there is no penalty for failure, failures proliferate like a plague. (And if you do not think that mere incompetence can be dangerous, I suggest that you read the 911 Commission Report. And then read the Washington Post’s Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks’ excellent book: “FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” (Penguin Press, 2006).

    You call me “immoral” for pointing out the willful historical ignorance of so many of today’s young people.

    But what is truly immoral is when people like yourself willingly embrace the most mediocre of standards, accepting the shoddy and the slapdash as being perfectly satisfactory.

    You say that you are sad that I am a journalist. I think perhaps you have confused the role of the journalist in society. We are not meant to be cheer-leaders. Our role is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

    And if your views are the norm for educational standards today, then I tremble for the future of my country.

    Alexander Freund - 2/15/2008

    His approach is ignorant, because it is not based on any research on the teaching and learning of history in primary and secondary education. As he says himself, "I’m not basing this judgment on any detailed academic study or in-depth survey, but merely on what I see and hear almost every day as a resident of Washington DC." Anecdotes are not research. Can we agree on that?

    His approach is nationalist, because he regards history as the celebration of heroes. His fourth paragraph, beginning with "As the national’s capital,..." is a good example of this.

    I agree, to call his name calling is a moral judgment on my part, and I stand by it. How would you describe a man calling young people he does not even know "Dumb & Dumber" and "bird brains"? If you believe this is fair journalism, then we will have to agree to disagree on our moral values.

    You claim that I call Mr. Knipp names. No, I don't. Tell me, what are the names that I call him?

    You argue that the article is "well-written and a good read" -- I did not dispute that (although I would disagree with you, but that's not the point of our debate).

    Finally, you say that the content of the article is "on a subject ... that is common knowledge." Why would I want to read about something that I supposedly already know? News should tell me something new or help me understand an old issue from a new perspective. Mr. Knipp missed an opportunity to venture beyond his prejudices. There is neither research nor thinking evident in the article; that's why I call it lazy and misinformed.

    If you are seriously interested in the subject of teaching and learning history in primary and secondary education, there is a lot of good research out there. I encourage you to seek it out.

    Jonathan Pine - 2/14/2008

    It's YOUR ignorant reaction that is depressing, as well as ridiculous.

    Explain what is ignorant and nationalist about his approach to history? Spying? Immoral? Ignorant? All you've made are a list of accusations on a subject (well-written and a good read)that is common knowledge. You say name calling is immoral? Then why do you do it?

    Alexander Freund - 2/12/2008

    I am not sure whether I should be more depressed about Mr. Knipp's hurling of insults at young people (I am glad he's not a teacher), his ignorant and nationalist approach to history (I am sad he's a journalist), or his lazy and misinformed essay which is not in the least tainted by any research.

    Mr. Knipp, before you speak up on this topic again, please do some serious research (no, spying on children in DC does not qualify). As a starter, pick up a copy of Sam Wineburg's book _Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts_ to understand that there is a long history of slamming young people for their alleged ignorance of history. Along the way, you may learn that history is not about stuffing names, dates, and other facts into students' brains, but rather about helping them to think critically and intelligently about history.

    Where will you learn that calling young people "Dumb & Dumber" and "bird brains" is immoral? Ask your mother.

    Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 2/10/2008

    When I took my children through Independence Hall a few years ago it seemed like everyone in line was from a foreign country, and they were generally better informed and more interested than the Americans--some were obvious scholars. Of course many of the guides spoke in a dialect difficult for me to understand, and doubtless the foreigners heard even less. Yet, there could be a silver lining to this mess: after the Red Revolution has knocked over our own ignorant citizenry we might be liberated by an expeditionary force from Ulan Bator.

    Maarja Krusten - 2/9/2008

    Unfortunately, it seems as if it is not just students who are indifferent. . . .

    I wish educators among HNN's readers would have provided some insights on the issues described in this article. I've worked in the Washington area during my entire career and have often seen youngsters troop in to see the sights. I'm not convinced visitors centers will do much to spark their interest in history. Their effectiveness depends on the approach taken by the designers as well as on whether viewers are part of an organized group or visiting on their own as a family. There are several psychologocal angles to this. An organized group outing can trigger a dynamic that is not especially conducive to learning. I suspect that the dhynamic changes in some cases when a youngster visits a site with Mom and Dad, unobserved by peers known to him or her.

    A side note, anecdotally: I used to give briefings to select groups of high school students on the then still small portion of Nixon's released tapes while I was an employee of the National Archives during the 1980s. This included explaining the significance of the "smoking gun" tape. My colleagues and I also spoke in general terms about our primary work assignment, screening the rest of Nixon's tapes.

    Instead of boring them with what the law required of us and why, I tried to humanize the situation for the students. I would tell them, imagine what it would be like if you woke up one morning to realize that all the recordings you secretly had made of your conversations in school and at home had been seized and placed in government custody. And that archivists such as I would decide what the public would hear from them. That's what happened to President Nixon and we at the Archives are working through the consequences of that.

    Our briefings didn't tend to trigger a lot of questions from students. I didn't have a sense that the teachers had prepared groups particularly well for visitin us. I remember one occasion when a high school student waved her hand enthusiastically and I thought, aha, I've sparked some interest here. When I called on her, she asked, "How can I become a member of the intelligence community?" It was a term I had used in discussing the "smoking gun" tape!

    Randll Reese Besch - 2/4/2008

    As Jefferson warned would be a bulwark against the advancement of tyranny which would sneek in like a thief in the night to steal our Republic. Yes a Republic not a Democracy as Wilson called it back during the first World War, to 'defend' it.
    Thomas Jefferson's political party was called the Democratic-Republicans,what I nation should have been. We have nothing much like it now.It definitely isn't anymore.