The Biggest Problem In Our Country That No One Is Talking About
How the rise of historical illiteracy fuels polarization and what we can do to reverse the trend / society needs a dose of truth serum
It’s August 2016 and the U.S. Presidential election is in 3 months. Per usual, you’re mindlessly scrolling on social media when a video catches your eye: Americans don’t know why we celebrate the 4th of July!
As evident by the title, the video features a reporter asking Americans, “Why do we celebrate the 4th of July?”
When you begin to watch the clip, the first few responses elicit laughter as individuals and couples are stumped by such an ‘easy’ question. But as more and more individuals profess their ignorance to a fundamental fact about our country, your laughter switches to curiosity. You ask, “How can so many Americans not know something so basic, so important?”
At first blush, you hypothesize that these people are the minority in this country. Surely most Americans have a decent grasp of our basic history, right?
You decide to start researching the topic and stumble onto a report commissioned by the non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni titled, “A Crisis In Civic Education.”
The report cites surveys given to recent American college graduates — those with the highest degree of education in the country. Keep in mind, roughly 70% of Americans do not have a college degree.
College graduates’ survey scores were so alarming that the report concluded,
As an example, only 28% of college graduates identified James Madison as the ‘Father’ of the Constitution while 59% chose Thomas Jefferson who wasn’t even at the Constitutional Convention — he was in Paris serving as a trade commissioner and foreign minister.
Additionally, 1/3 of college graduates did not know that the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech.
Sure, maybe college graduates don’t need to know these facts to be effective at their jobs post-graduation. But then you realize that it’s impossible to be an informed citizen in your country’s democracy if you don’t understand the context and inner-workings of its mechanics.
So you ask yourself, “What are the consequences of historical illiteracy on our democracy?”
You do some more digging and begin to ponder whether a lack of historical knowledge has played a significant role in the rise of political polarization.
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni states,
You explore the validity of this argument and consider the correlation between polarization and historical illiteracy.
Qualitatively, your observations on social media and communications through group chats suggest a resounding yes. More of your ‘friends’ begin to come out of the woodwork with long-formed posts on social media expressing their political outrage.
Quantitatively, you find the chart below from 2014.
As evidenced in the charts above, Democrats and Republicans have become more entrenched in their views. Even more eye-opening, you find the chart below:
Self-identified Democrats who see Republicans as a threat increased 69% from 1994 to 2014; Republicans who see Democrats as a threat increased 112% in the same period!
These findings make you slightly depressed and fearful for the future. And since it’s August 2016, the future is being decided now as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton square off for the U.S. Presidency.
You realize the apparent downsides of polarization — as societies stop communicating, progress halts and hatred rises under the surface until it reaches a boiling point.
Since you have a newfound appreciation for history, you ask yourself, “How can we learn from the past to address the present?”
From 1776 through 1860, the ‘United’ States engaged in a ferocious debate about the Constitutionality of slavery. In 1861, communication completely broke down; the hatred between the North and South was irreparable, and the Civil War began. And what was the result of this war, you may ask?
Despite the emancipation of the slaves, 620,000 Americans died due to ideological differences.
You ask yourself, what could be done to combat historical illiteracy now, and if it’s too little too late.
In 2016 during the U.S. Presidential campaign, I went through the above thought process and decided:
Yet, when I looked for that, I couldn’t find it.
Sure, the History channel is around, but they’ve deviated from their original purpose and now produce shows like Ice Road Truckers, Counting Cars, and Pawn Stars. They make great entertainment, but ultimately they’re not educating viewers about history in a way that matters.
You can make the case that standard media companies cover history in relative detail; however, their focus is on ‘Breaking News,’ not helping the public digest it.
Also, media organizations are biased and cherry-pick stories that fit their narrative. In doing so, these media companies focus on click-bait headlines that further divide society.
Now that it’s August 2019 — three years after the original observation — I think it’s obvious that political polarization has gotten worse.
History increases our understanding of the past which catalyzes thoughtful dialogue about the future.
That’s why we created Truth Serum -- a media company that creates objective, concise, and entertaining historical content to elicit a new age of historical enlightenment.
Our goal is to educate the world about our shared history.
Why? Because Today Matters.