The ignorance of Americans about their history has a long history. You can find surveys of freshman classes at Harvard, conducted a century ago, that reveal startling lapses in basic knowledge. The myths of American history—the comforting fairy tales and conspiracy theories and outright inventions—are as numerous as the facts, and frequently better known. Even in the heyday of the liberal arts on campus, history was never a fashionable subject for study. As the Communists used to say, it is no coincidence that the famous scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the teacher is lecturing uninterested students involves a history lesson. And an important one, for as Wilfred M. McClay explains in Land of Hope, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930 was “disastrous… ill-conceived.”
Does any of this matter? Americans may generally be preoccupied elsewhere and more engaged by relative trivialities, but this hardly distinguishes them from the average Belgian or Chinese. The business of life is always more urgent than the study of the past. And in any case, no matter what their philosophical posture may be, Americans still walk over battlefields, drive to Mount Rushmore, and have their photograph taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. As much as I dislike Ken Burns’s popular documentaries on PBS, they respond to some measurable need in the American soul.