How to Get Smart Again


Back in the 1840s, a group of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants in New York founded the Know-Nothing movement—also known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner or, in the 1850s, the American Party—to agitate against the new wave of immigrants from Catholic Ireland and Germany. When asked about their organization’s semi-secret activities, members were supposed to reply, “I know nothing”—hence the name Know-Nothings.

Today’s Know-Nothings aren’t necessarily opposed to immigrants. They certainly can’t feel superior to them, for the simple reason that they know less about the land of their birth than newcomers applying to become citizens of it. A shocking 38 percent of a representative sample of Americans failed the test that all immigrants applying for citizenship are required to take.

ignorance-quiz-BUG What Don't You Know? Take the Quiz. Illustration by Josh McKible for Newsweek

Historical knowledge matters. If you don’t know the origins of America’s unique political institutions, you can’t truly appreciate the freedoms you enjoy as a U.S. citizen. If you’re ignorant of America’s many conflicts—from the War of Independence to the war on terror—you underestimate the price of liberty. And if you have no knowledge of slavery, don’t expect to understand the enduring difficulties American society has with the issue of race.

Ordinary Americans don’t literally know nothing, of course, but they certainly don’t know much. Nearly nine in 10 ( 88 percent) can’t name two of the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Only one in 10 Americans ( 12 percent) knows the name of even one author of The Federalist Papers. Only one in five knows who was president during World War I. And only one in four knows what the Cold War was about.

What makes this new evidence of historical ignorance all the more astonishing is that all American states still require high-school students to spend time studying the history of their country.

No one passes through an American education without carrying around for several years a large, lavishly illustrated textbook called something like The History of the United States. It usually starts in the Colonial era and ends with the Cold War. Trendier versions start with the earliest Native Americans and end with Barack Obama’s election as president. Either way, the basic national story is there.

Nor is there any shortage of information about the U.S. past after kids graduate from high school. Most colleges oblige students to take at least one history course. There is an entire cable-TV network called the History Channel. Bookstores have shelf upon shelf of American-history books. And big U.S. cities have excellent historical museums.

Every now and then Hollywood, too, gets historical. This year, thanks to Colin Firth’s brilliant performance in The King’s Speech, most Americans know that the British had a king called George who had a stammer. They might not be 100 percent sure that he was George VI, as opposed to the V or the IV. But most understand that he wasn’t George III. Wrong clothes.

So how do we explain the levels of historical ignorance revealed by this survey? In some quarters, it’s fashionable to blame the public teachers’ union for at least half of society’s ills. But I’m not sure it is the prime suspect in this case. No, the guilt really lies with the traditional textbook.

Let’s consider the leader of the pack, Pearson Education’s United States History. It costs $106. It covers 1,264 pages. It’s almost a foot long. And it weighs 6.4 pounds. How much would you love history if you had to carry one of those to school every day?

It’s not that these books are badly written, though a few are. (A new textbook about the history of Virginia, published last year, got the dates of the War of Independence wrong, as well as the number of states that joined the Confederacy.) Most are authored by a team of tenured professors, cut and corrected by a gang of editors, and road-tested by a focus group of teachers before publication. The problem is that—in addition to being both pricey and heavy—they are boring.

It’s no coincidence that in the Harry Potter books the most boring subject at Hogwarts is history. Mr. Binns, the teacher, is so tedious that he has bored himself to death—without noticing.

In Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, one character complains that history is just “one f--king thing after another.” Long before page 1,264, most readers of modern textbooks think that, too. In their efforts to be both comprehensive and politically correct, the author committees lose any notion of an overarching narrative structure. The effect is that of an encyclopedia without the convenience of alphabetical order.

Moreover, because academics have a tendency toward excessive specialization, they often lose sight of the really interesting questions about U.S. history, which are inherently comparative. Why did the American Revolution turn out so much better—with a far lower death toll—than the French? Why did George Washington’s legacy prove more enduring than Simón Bolívar’s? Why did the Civil War not end in political division, the way Germany’s Wars of Unification ended with the exclusion of the south—Austria—from the Reich?

Here are three positive suggestions to make high-school history more engaging and thereby more memorable. First, replace those phone-book-size tomes with Web-enabled content. Second, make the new stuff more interactive. (There’s solid evidence that well-designed games and simulations hugely improve learning.) And third, ask more exciting questions.

What if Washington had shared Napoleon’s appetite for imperial power? What if the British had supported the Confederacy with cash and cannons? What if Franklin Roosevelt had not been president in World War II?

In his masterly answer to that last “counterfactual” question, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth rightly suggests that it’s the sense of inevitability—whatever happened had to happen—that makes school history so dull: “What we schoolchildren studied as ‘History’ [was] harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” But when historic events are actually happening—as now in Japan and the Arab world—“the unfolding of the unforeseen [is] everything … The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.”

So here’s another question: what if a third or more of Americans remain Know-Nothings about their country’s history? Then Roth’s ultimate unforeseen terror—an America where individual freedom is altogether lost—could one day become a reality.

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