History is history to youngsters

Thursday, July 5, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:13 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Young people today are bright and energetic. They have fantastic technological abilities, able to handle the Internet with few, if any problems. They have a sense of social networking virtually unknown to their parents and grandparents. They have dropped most of their prejudices, but not all. They seem to have a deep prejudice against history.

Maybe it’s not they are against history; they are simply blind to it. Books by historians seem to be better than, or as good as, ever, but they don’t appeal to high school and college students. History to most young people is what they did this past weekend.

For the last few years I have been made keenly aware of this anti-historical demeanor among the young. Informally, in conversations with teenagers and college students, I have noted their abysmal knowledge of history. Some exceptions, yes. But I am speaking in generalities. Several years ago when I was young, I knew the historical context of such terms as Waterloo, the Pillars of Hercules, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Spanish Armada, the Fountain of Youth, the Alamo, Hannibal and his Elephants, Crossing the Rubicon, the Trojan Horse, the Little Big Horn, the Alexandrian Library, and Silk Road to China.

I also could readily identify Pericles, Philip of Macedon, Herodotus, Xerxes, Nero, Stanley and Livingstone, Charlemagne, Peter the Great, Alexander the Great, Erik the Red, Vasco de Gama, Crazy Horse, Miles Standish, Savonarola, Attila the Hun, Constantine, Gutenberg, Homer, Alexander Hamilton, George Marshall, and Pontius Pilate.

Ask a freshman or sophomore in college today about these terms and people. They will make a very poor showing. So, you say, what’s the problem; they probably are familiar with a great many others. True, but it seems to me that these I mention are among the most basic of historical knowledge.

I have a little game I plan when I introduce myself to a new class. I have done this for several years now. I tell the students my name and that I am a former journalist, having worked for William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal. When I was a young reporter there, the Spanish-American War broke out and I, with a pool of journalists, went with troops to Spain aboard the USS Maine. We landed in Salamanca, and two weeks later, with the Rough Riders of Franklin Roosevelt, we went up San Juan Hill in the bloodiest battle of the war. After fierce fighting, we defeated the Spanish commander, Pancho Villa, and we were back in the States about two weeks later.

It is amazing how many students took the intro story seriously. Enough said.

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