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A New Year’s resolution worth making. January 1, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about a New Year’s resolution that would benefit every American citizen. As you all know, I’m a history buff, especially addicted to Colonial and early American history. I propose that we all resolve to learn more about our own history this year.

I was prompted to think of this resolution while reading an article in our local paper called “Without history, America is doomed” by Paul Carpenter. (You can read the complete article online at www.themorningcall.com.) The article provided some results of a study by the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, on Americans’ knowledge of American history. I quote:

“More than a third of Americans could not pick the century in which the American Revolution began. Only 42 percent were aware that the nation is a republic. Three-quarters of high school students did not know that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. A third of Americans thought the Civil War came before the American Revolution and more than a third had no idea which country was hit by atomic bombs at the end of World War II. More than half of high school seniors thought Germany, Italy and Japan were U.S. allies in that war.”

Yikes! The Civil War preceded the Revolutionary War?!! And beyond this study, I’ll bet few of us could name all our presidents in chronological (or any other) order, or even all 50 states, much less state capitals. I wonder how many people know the name of the only man to sign all four major documents of the emerging American republic? (Yes, it was our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin. And the documents were the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, the Alliance with France, and the U.S. Constitution, in case you were wondering.)

But it’s not too late to learn. Good history books make for entertaining reading, and history programs and movies, from “1776” to the acclaimed series on John Adams, make good viewing. I suggest a trip to your local library or bookstore where you can actually look at the books and DVDs to see which appeal most to you in terms of style and content. Used book stores are also great resources for hard-to-find history books, and for films and programs, there’s always Netflix.

I’m sure all of us could use some brushing up on our knowledge of American and world history. My knowledge of 20th-century history is appalling. I checked with fellow blog contributors our friend Ben and Silence Dogood, and though they could answer all the Lexington Study’s questions without difficulty, they also confessed to big gaps in their knowledge of history.

Silence revealed that she was seriously geographically challenged and has yet to manage to name all 50 states, even though she tries about twice a year, much less the Seven Seas, American Possessions, or all the countries on pretty much any continent beyond North America. “I thought for years that the Philippines were off the coast of South America,” she confessed. “It was so humiliating.”

Our friend Ben notes that pretty much all modern history is a mystery to him. “I could tell you all about Iceland during the time of the Icelandic Sagas (about 1000 A.D.), or about Minoan Crete,” OFB says. “But ask me about modern Iceland or, say, Holland, or the Eisenhower or George H. W. Bush administrations, and d’oh!!!”

OFB and Silence agreed to add reading up on history to their New Year’s resolutions. I’m certainly up for it. What about you?





1. Cinj - January 1, 2010

Wow, that’s scary when you think about it. I know they have to learn about that stuff in school. I guess they really need to put it all into context to get it. It’s also sad that history can be forgotten so fast. I don’t do resolutions, but this is an excellent goal to aim for.

I like the idea of goals rather than resolutions, Cinj, especially when you know you’re aiming for something challenging. (Though I do rather admire reverse resolutions, exemplified by the Sweet Potato Queens, whose resolutions were along the lines of “I resolve to sleep later and eat more chocolate and fried chicken.”)

2. Dave@TheHomeGarden - January 1, 2010

That’s a great idea! Too many people don’t know hardly anything about the founding of our country. I have a sister-in-law who is Laotian and had to go over some historic things for her citizenship test. I think many legal immigrants learn more about our country than the naturally born citizens. Maybe everyone should have to take such a test to be a citizen!

I know what you mean, Dave! I know I learned more about grammar taking French than I ever did taking English!

3. Heather - January 1, 2010

This brings many of my shortcomings to the forefront. I am sorely lacking in my American History and need to make time to learn more. Happy New Year!

We’re in the same boat, Heather! A very happy, healthy and prosperous new year to you and yours!!!

4. Lzyjo - January 1, 2010

Oh my those are some scary stats!!!! History has always been one of the classes, along with geology, were I always did poorly becuase I was quite disinterested in the topic. I put forth this challenge. If you want to know more than you ever wanted to know about any topic, just write 25 multiple choice questions.

A little aside, I thought this was the “information” age……HA! With Wikipedia two clicks away there is NO excuse for this ignorance. I guess since America and most high schoolers aren’t sure what the bill of rights no one cares or notices when our civil liberties are eroded!

Dave has an excellent point about the citizenship tests no American, or rather hardly any Americans, know that stuff.

Good points, Lzyjo! Wikipedia is such a great tool. The day never passes that I don’t look something up on there!

5. Dr. Huma Ibrahim - January 2, 2010

Howard Zinn is one of my favorite American historians!

Thanks, Huma! I’ll check him out!

6. Daphne - January 2, 2010

As a kid I hated taking government classes. I found them tedious, but not now. I would so love to take one. Reading wouldn’t do it for me. I’d just forget everything after I read it. I have the memory of a sieve. But having to take tests would make me learn it all.

I have a book on the history of my home state, Tennessee, dating from the 1890s. My great-grandmother apparently had to read it in one of her classes. Can you imagine having to read a book on the history of your state in school now?! Wow. I could probably tell you about five things about Tennessee history if someone held a gun to my head. What a loss.—OFB

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