Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In Praise of Ignorance

In today's column, Ann Applebaum criticizes the historical ignorance of most Americans:

"According to one poll, more U.S. teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government. Even fewer can state the first three words of the Constitution. A San Francisco reporter once did an informal survey of teenagers watching Fourth of July fireworks in a park and found that only half could name the country from which the United States had won its independence. ("Japan or something, China," said one seventh-grader. "Somewhere out there on the other side of the world.") We're not talking about ignorance of semi-obscure facts here: We're talking about ignorance of basic information."

But might not such ignorance be the sign of a healthy society? In the Balkans, Christians Slavs still stew over their defeat by the Muslim Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. In the Middle East, Islamic radicals wistfully recall the glory days of Saladin's caliphate in the Twelfth Century and get angry over the "Adalusia tragedy"--the end of Moorish rule in Spain in 1492. And to bin Laden, the humiliation caused by the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 is as recent as yesterday. In each of these cases, a precise historical memory is symptomatic of a dysfunctional society. It seems to me that a healthy and successful society forgets about the past because it can. What matters is the present and the future, so better to move on than to nurse centuries-old grudges. I'd guess that in Europe, knowledge of history has waned as that continent has become more peaceful, prosperous, and unified. In the U.S., perhaps it is a sign of health that fourth-graders don't know about World War I.

1 comment:

R. Kossover said...


It appears that you would like to forget history. That's a nice idea except that it leaves all the advantages with the fellow who takes the trouble to remember.

Let's consider the Arabs for a moment. They have not contributed much to science over the last 500 years, but they remember every slight they have suffered over the last 1,500. They take the trouble to remember.

This means that kids riding a Madrid train may forget the Catholic conquest of Iberia, but the Arabs who blow them up haven't. Israeli kids dancing in a nightclub near Jaffa may forget (or may have never known) that Jaffa was once an Arab city. But the Arabs who blew them up the Dolphinarium didn't.

So, Phil, your idea is fantastic - except for all the funerals you have to go to......