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Commentary | DAVID GELERNTER

We Are Our History -- Don't Forget It

June 17, 2005|DAVID GELERNTER

Not knowing history is worse than ignorance of math, literature or almost anything else. Ignorance of history is undermining Western society's ability to talk straight and think straight. Parents must attack the problem by teaching their own children the facts. Only fools would rely on the schools.

My son told me about a high school event that (at first) I didn't understand. A girl in his English class praised the Vietnam War-era draft dodgers: "If I'd lived at that time and been drafted," she said, "I would've gone to Canada too."

I thought she was merely endorsing the anti-war position. But my son set me straight. This student actually believed that if she had lived at the time, she might have been drafted. She didn't understand that conscription in the United States has always applied to males only. How could she have known? Our schools teach history ideologically. They teach the message, not the truth. They teach history as if males and females have always played equal roles. They are propaganda machines.

Ignorance of history destroys our judgment. Consider Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), who just compared the Guantanamo Bay detention center to Stalin's gulag and to the death camps of Hitler and Pol Pot -- an astonishing, obscene piece of ignorance. Between 15 million and 30 million people died from 1918 through 1956 in the prisons and labor camps of the Soviet gulag. Historian Robert Conquest gives some facts. A prisoner at the Kholodnaya Gora prison had to stuff his ears with bread before sleeping on account of the shrieks of women being interrogated. At the Kolyma in Siberia, inmates labored through 12-hour days in cheap canvas shoes, on almost no food, in temperatures that could go to minus-58. At one camp, 1,300 of 3,000 inmates died in one year.

"Gulag" must not go the way of "Nazi" and become virtually meaningless. Europeans love calling Israelis "Nazis" -- a transparent attempt to slough off their guilt like rattlesnakes shedding skin. ("See, the Jews are as bad as we were!") I'd like to ban the word "Nazi" except when applied to ... Nazis. Lawbreakers would be ordered to learn what Nazi actually means.

I was amazed to hear about teenagers who don't know Fact 1 about the Vietnam War draft. But I have met college students who have never heard of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge -- the genocidal monsters who treated Cambodia in the 1970s to a Marxist nightmare unequaled in its bestiality since World War II.

And I know college students who have heard of President Kennedy but not of anything he ever did except get assassinated. They have never heard JFK's inaugural promise: that America would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and the success of liberty." But President Bush remembers that speech, and it's lucky he does.

To forget your own history is (literally) to forget your identity. By teaching ideology instead of facts, our schools are erasing the nation's collective memory. As a result, some "expert" can go on TV and announce (20 minutes into the fighting) that Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever "is the new Vietnam" -- and young people can't tell he is talking drivel.

There is an ongoing culture war between Americans who are ashamed of this nation's history and those who acknowledge with sorrow its many sins and are fiercely proud of it anyway. Proud of the 17th century settlers who threw their entire lives overboard and set sail for religious freedom in their rickety little ships. Proud of the new nation that taught democracy to the world. Proud of its ferocious fight to free the slaves, save the Union and drag (lug, shove, sweat, bleed) America a few inches closer to its own sublime ideals. Proud of its victories in two world wars and the Cold War, proud of the fight it is waging this very day for freedom in Iraq and the whole Middle East.

If you are proud of this country and don't want its identity to vanish, you must teach U.S. history to your children. They won't learn it in school. This nation's memory will go blank unless you act.

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