Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The lesser-known continuation of that quote reads, “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”
In today’s society, it is easier to be informed of the latest Kardashian scandal, satirical debate or homerun blockbuster than about our constitution, our government and the history that has shaped our country. It is easier to make conversation about modern fads and celebrity obsessions than about our laws and the reasoning behind their formation.
We have grown accustomed to constant entertainment, and as a result, history seems stagnant, boring and unchangeable. Regardless, short attention spans and lack of interest are not excuses for historical ignorance.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed that, in a 2014 study of more than 29,000 United States eighth graders, only 18 percent scored at or above the “proficient” level on the U.S. history assessment. Only 27 percent scored “proficient” or above in geography, and only 23 percent in civics. For less formal evidence, one only has to search “Politically Challenged” on YouTube to pull up countless examples of interviewers stopping bystanders on the streets to ask them questions about U.S. history, only to receive comically ignorant responses.
Americans: Especially in election year, we have a responsibility to be aware of our country’s history. We have a responsibility to care about why the founding fathers shaped the Constitution in the way they did and understand what events preceded the formation of various parts of our governmental structure. Despite the common misconception, history is not obsolete. It has shaped our lives, our elections, our country, and it matters.
Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” As we move forward with the upcoming presidential elections, it is more important than ever that we make a conscious effort to be informed listeners. History is a guidebook outlining methods and practices that were successful or failed in the past. It shows us which actions led to improvement and which to degradation, and instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we should use it as a lens through which to view present-day circumstances.
To clarify, I am not advocating that we each must be intimately familiar with every detail of United States history. Knowing lists of dates, battles and figureheads was only useful to graduate high school. On the contrary, Americans should be familiar with the general, essential information such as the different aspects of the Constitution and what freedoms it awards us, the complaints that led to the Declaration of Independence and how it shaped our governmental structure, or the base principles the Founding Fathers considered most important when outlining America’s structure. These aspects of our history are directly apply to our daily lives, and they are an essential part of the American experience.
It is our responsibility to be informed. We need to have a working knowledge of at least the most essential elements in our history not only so that we can safeguard our freedoms and rights, but also so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. History is a looking glass that allows us to examine what has worked and has not, what should be upheld and what needs to be changed. By choosing ignorance, by choosing to care more about trivialities and comedy than our history, we are choosing to ignore a vital source for information regarding how we should proceed in the future.