Of Hamas and Historical Ignorance

PG Note: This OP is a little closer to politics than PG usually strays. What caught his eye is a significant problem with literacy/reading and the consequences arising therefrom.

From The Dispatch:

In the wake of Hamas’ brutal assault on Israel, campuses across the United States have been home to rallies and demonstrations that are nominally pro-Palestinian but effectively celebrations of the terrorist group. Students at George Washington projected slogans such as “Glory to the Martyrs” on a campus building, a Cornell student was arrested for threatening to rape and kill Jewish students, and numerous campuses have been home to antisemitic assaults and vandalism.

The reaction has highlighted the degree to which we’ve left a generation of youth vulnerable to ludicrous doctrines, social media manipulation, and genuinely bad actors. The shocking support among young adults for Hamas’ assault draws on historic ignorance and crude postmodern notions of justice and victimhood, in which torture and kidnapping were rebranded a justifiable response to “colonial privilege.”

The problem starts well before students arrive at college. The average high school student knows little about American history, and even less about the world. A 2018 survey found that 41 percent of adult Americans couldn’t identify Auschwitz as a Nazi concentration camp. Among millennials specifically, two-thirds couldn’t identify Auschwitz and 22 percent had never heard of the Holocaust. So much for “Never forget.” 

Such findings are of a piece with the abysmal performance of younger students in history and geography on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the most recent assessment, of a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders, just 13 percent of students were judged “proficient” in U.S. history and just 22 percent in civics. These results continue a decade-long decline.

As Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap, has aptly put it, “You can’t think critically about what you don’t know.” This problem isn’t new. But it’s taken on added urgency in a time of intense polarization, declining academic achievement, ubiquitous social media, and rapidly advancing deepfake technology. 

In 1978, alarmed by test results from poor, minority students at a Richmond community college who were ignorant of foundational historic figures and events, scholar E.D. Hirsch began researching the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. His 1987 book Cultural Literacy became a surprise bestseller and sparked a push for a more rigorous curriculum. 

But teacher training and schools of education largely rejected Hirsch and clung fast to a progressive consensus that children should learn self-confidence and “skills,” not dates and names. Those engaged in preparing a new generation of teachers rejected Hirsch’s belief in the importance of knowledge as “elitist, Eurocentric and focused too heavily on rote memorization,” as a Virginia magazine profile of the famed UVA professor described. Indeed, a decade later, one of us taught alongside the genial, soft-spoken Hirsch, only to see fellow UVA education school faculty quietly steer their students away from this dangerous figure.

The internet supposedly made learning all those “mere facts” unnecessary, anyway. As scholar Mark Bauerlein recounted in his 2009 book The Dumbest Generation, education professors and advocates enamored of “21st century skills” insisted that we needed to move “beyond facts, skills, and right answers” and that students could always just look up all that other stuff.

The skills-over-facts trend paralleled a push to jettison traditional historical narratives and moral certainties in favor of critical theories. Beginning in the 1980s, Howard Zinn’s enormously influential (if oft-inaccurate) People’s History of the United States recast America’s story as one of unbroken villainy and oppression. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1980 and was added to high school curricula across the land.  

The unapologetic aim of Zinn’s work—and that of its latter-day, award-winning imitator the 1619 Project—was not to explore our simultaneously wonderful and woeful history but to impress on young people that America and its allies are oppressive colonial powers (that the U.S. is, according to the architect of the 1619 Project, a “slavocracy”).

As a teacher said to one of us recently regarding developments in Israel and Gaza: “Many kids have little to no understanding of the historical context. I feel overwhelmed trying to explain things to them in a side comment here or there.” This teacher lives 10 miles from the state capital, in a town where the average household earns $130,000. This community, filled with educated parents and well-regarded schools, sends the vast majority of its high school graduates on to four-year colleges.

This teacher knows that geography, history, religion, economics, and philosophy are essential to understanding the context of these attacks. But these are subjects that too few schools teach coherently or consistently. Last year K-12 teachers told RAND that it’s more important for civics education to promote environmental activism than “knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” 

Teachers who hold these beliefs are unlikely to give students the knowledge or grounding they need to make sense of the world around them. Indeed, the same teachers told RAND their top two priorities for civics education are “promoting critical and independent thinking” and “developing skills in conflict resolution.” What’s striking is that these responses are strikingly content-free. 

In 2020, RAND surveyed high school civics teachers about what they thought graduates needed to know. Just 43 percent thought it essential that they know about periods such as “the Civil War and the Cold War.” Less than two-thirds thought it essential for graduates to know the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Critical thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s no way for anyone to form meaningful independent judgments on what’s unfolding in Israel and Gaza if they haven’t learned much about history, geography, economics, or political systems. 

This is pretty instructive when it comes to understanding, for instance, how Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” has recently gone viral on TikTok. It’s not obvious that Gen Z is eagerly searching for wisdom from mass murderers. But as they spend hours casting about social media, youth who know little about the events or aftermath of 9/11 are encountering a long-dead figure who promises to provide the history and moral clarity they’re not getting elsewhere. We’re sending ill-equipped, confused youth out into the wilds of social media, and we’re reaping the unsurprising result.

As academic rigor and traditional norms have retreated, the space has increasingly been filled by moral relativism and contempt for Western civilization. The result is progressive students who hail Hamas as an ally—an odd way to regard theocratic ideologues who are cavalier about rape, murdering homosexuals, and treating women as chattel.

Writing from a Jerusalem university emptied of students by the present conflict, economist Russ Roberts recently observed, “Open societies are going to have to come to terms with the reality” that some citizens “want to live in a very different kind of society and are willing to use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate and harm people they disagree with.”

Link to the rest at The Dispatch

9 thoughts on “Of Hamas and Historical Ignorance”

  1. Once upon a time in America, “teaching” was an honored trade, albeit not a profession… because it was almost entirely for women. Then three things happened within two decades: American participation in the last act of the Second Thirty Years’ War (what those with only a surface knowledge of history refer to as World War II), the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Together, these radically changed women’s work opportunities, which began pushing highly-capable women out of the classroom and into the lab and industry and finance. But it was that last one that really did it: An education degree, with rampant grade inflation before anyone really used the term, was (rightly) viewed as a great way to get a good enough GPA, with relatively minimal effort, sufficient to maintain a draft deferment against an increasingly unpopular overseas conflict (with disturbing funhouse mirror images of a couple centuries previously Over Here butting in, but there’s that expectation of knowing more history than one gets in high school these days, or even then).

    So the real problem is this: For any American who went through the public school system after Truman fired that SOB MacArthur† I’m willing to bet that even including high schools that had different teachers for each class (unlike PG’s!), no more than two teachers had been National Merit Scholars — and, frankly, for most Americans one or zero. It’s not that future Nobel Prize winners need to spend time teaching remedial ninth-grade math or social studies or earth science; it’s that having virtually no high academic achievers in positions of authority in the schools (and the less said about school administrators, the better) discourages the potential high academic achievers. At best, because it also encourages the four-letter words most commonly used about those potential high achievers in public schools: Nerd and geek.

    † Look up the Bonus Riots and then tell me that “SOB” is an unjustified insult.

    • Hey, C, I did have different teachers for every class. None of them were any good at their jobs, of course.

      I’ll have you know that was the valedictorian of my class of 22.

      My high school girlfriend, #2 in the class, and I were the only H.S. grads who got a college degree. Most of our classmates didn’t try to go to college.

      The school was closed for good a few years after I graduated.

    • On the “second thirty years war”: I tend to align with the “long war” epocal war model myself. The war of the 20th started in 1904 with the ruso-japanese war and ended with collapse of the Soviets. The central question being what *form* of goverment best served an industrial nation: fascism, communism, or “democracy”.

      At the start all the major players considered variations of all three (including the US which flirted with its own form of fascism up to the 60’s) and the war didn’t end until the last of the major players adopted the *form* of a multiparty democracy.


      (The first (historical) half presents a compelling case for the Long War model. Second half, being predictive, is still TBD but the ongoing collapse of globalization and the shift to economic regionalization hints he may not be totally off.)

      As usual, the end of one epochal war left open the issues that would lead to the next.
      For now, it looks like the global war of the 21st (initially) is about pluralism vs authoritarianism–which is the most effective way to *run* a post-industrial nation. Not all its battlefields will involve Napoleonic military action. This war is playing out in meatspace, cyberspace, and outer space. And not all meatspsce battles will involve physical freedom, “just” freedom of thought and expression, in China, Russia, Poland, Mexico, and the US.

      Much like the Long War, regional proxy wars will obscure the deeper conflict and all major players (which this time actively involves all continents, including southam, africa, and oceania) are considering variations of the fundamental question: can an effective 21st century society afford diversity of thought? Will it help or hinder in organizing and running the country? And which ideology is to prevail? The question is in play in eastern asia, eastern europe, latin america from Mexico to Brazil and Chile and parts between.

      And US classrooms, where the multiple absolutist ideologies are colliding.
      We already know where the gerontocracy stands, now to see if pluralism still stands a chance before absolutism.

      TBD. But not soon. First the millenials and zoomers the world over will have to fight it out.

  2. just 13 percent of students were judged “proficient” in U.S. history and just 22 percent in civics

    It would be great fun to give these tests to the teachers. Perhaps they can’t teach what they don’t know.

    • That’s the point, the teachers can’t teach actual history.

      But teacher training and schools of education largely rejected Hirsch and clung fast to a progressive consensus that children should learn self-confidence and “skills,” not dates and names.

      I grew up watching the various Walter Cronkite series like Word War II, and The 20th Century.

      It was syndicated and on every day, repeating in rotation.

      To find that schools and TV stopped teaching about the history of the 20th Century explains everything.

    • They’re not required to *know* the subject they’re supposed to teach. In fact, it is frowned upon, *especially* in history, math, and science. What they prefer is a teaching certificate and union membership. Degrees in xxx studies preferred.

      And if anybody is actually good at teaching the canned curriculum, (accidents happen) they get promoted out of the classroom.

      It’s a bit late to be noticing this.
      Oddly enough, the Covid lockdowns exposed the state of public “education”:


    • Most of them do NOT. My generation – the Baby Boomers – was one of the last to be given a knowledge of the classical sweep of Western history. Just one example – the Progressive movement, which is the grand daddy of today’s movements, was one that was filled with Karens, smug rich single people who were sure the dumb hicks needed to be led to their proper place by the Elite. Todays kids haven’t a clue who their ideological predecessors were.
      Today’s students have little understanding of the history of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and how they were forced to leave by successions of tyrants, bullies, and religious fanatics.
      They just glom onto the trendy victim, and commence their strident bullying tactics on Americans who share the heritage of Jew.

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