I'm not real certain why it so bothered me to read that the majority of American high school students have no idea when the Civil War took place. It just seems like this is something anyone with any small bit of intelligence would know. That this is just one of those essential bits of knowledge that any American, with cerebral function, would know.
I asked a few adults yesterday if they knew when the Civil War took place. 3 out of 5 did. That was encouraging. But the 2 out of the 5 who did not know, well, their rationalizations for their ignorance were quite bizarre.
I won't name names. But one of the ignorant ones is up in Tacoma. This person thought the Civil War took place in 1812. But, the disturbing part was her rationale for being ignorant about a key piece of her nation's history. She told me that history is my thing, not hers. That she has other interests. Like I would have no idea what a Wedermeyer Chest was. Is some people's thinking so degraded that they equate knowing about a piece of furniture to knowing about the worst calamity to befall their nation, a calamity that reverberates to this day?
And then the other, much more disturbing, adult who did not know when the Civil War took place. Now, when I asked her I told her it would be understandable if she did not know, because she did not grow up in the United States, she grew up in Puerto Rico.
Well. She got all mad and defensive, going on about how she learned that but had no reason to keep that memory because she had too much on her mind and had to think about the future, not the past.
Okay, so that was pretty weird. And then a few minutes later she started going on about something in Puerto Rico that was making her mad, that being something about Puerto Rico making some demand of Spain. Something made me think she could conceive of no possible reason why Puerto Rico might make a claim on Spain.
So. I thought to myself, she's seemed pretty ignorant before, let's see how ignorant she actually is. So, I asked her if she knew why it was that Puerto Rico was part of the United States. She said she did not. She said she didn't care. That it wasn't important.
I then asked if she knew when Puerto Rico became part of the United States. She seemed really proud of herself when she answered that one, thinking she had the answer. She said "1492."
I sat there flabbergasted. This is a person constantly spewing the most ridiculous of ill-informed opinions and now I was right at the Heart of her Ignorance. This was a Puerto Rican who did not know why she grew up speaking Spanish, why or when her island became part of the United States. This is a person who must have never wondered why there is all that old Spanish architecture on the island.
She got very mad when I suggested if she knew about what happened in the past she might better understand the present. She then went on, again, about having too much in her head to add the past, that the past isn't important, tomorrow and the future are all that matter.
How does one communicate to such ignorance I sat and wondered?
The Puerto Rican is always going on, in a Doomsday fashion, about how the world is in such bad shape and so dangerous, with so many nations wanting to hurt the United States, particularly South America. I've tried to explain to her that the present is much better than having Soviet missiles aimed at us and growing up afraid of the dangerous commies. She had no idea what I was talking about. To her Hugo Chavez poses a grave threat to America, rather than the buffoonish cartoon character he appears to be to most of us. On and on she can go about Hugo Chavez, as if he's a modern era Hitler, and an important public figure on the world stage.
And therein lies the danger of being ignorant. If you've never heard of the Great Depression, if you've no clue about the total global chaos of World War II. If you are ignorant of the Cold War and the era when missiles were aimed at the United States. If you don't know of the bubonic plague. If you've never learned of the horrible famines that used to plague the planet. If you know nothing about madmen like Hitler. If you are totally ignorant about that which has happened before you are easy prey to stupid demagoguery. You'll believe that terrorism is the worst thing the United States has ever faced. You'll believe that $4 a gallon gas is the worst economic disaster of all time. You'll fear that a Holocaust denying fool, in Iran, is a grave threat to the world. You'll believe we live in the worst of times, when in reality, in most ways on most days, the world is in the best shape its ever been.
40 years ago who would have ever thought that China and India would be food exporters? Who would have thought a place like Dubai would rise in the Arab desert? That the Berlin Wall would be gone, Germany united, the Cold War won, by US, the Soviet Union gone, the Vietnamese loving American tourists, a black guy with a good shot at being our next President, cancer rates way down. 40 years ago who would have thought that Central and South America would be doing as well as they are now, stable for the most part, democracies, for the most part. 40 years ago, during the Space Race, who would have thought that, these few short years later, that America and Russia now cooperate in space, working together. And China is having an Olympics. And has put a man in space and is aiming at the moon.
It's a wonderful world.
I wonder if George W. Bush knows when the Civil War took place?