In 1940, when Great Britain stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut, France lay conquered, the United States was officially neutral, and the Soviet Union was tied by treaty to Germany, Winston Churchill recruited history to cheer his countrymen and stiffen their spines. In a September 1940 radio broadcast, as invasion loomed, Churchill said:
We must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than these brave old days of the past.
Churchill could speak in this fashion because, not only was he well versed in British history, he knew his listeners were too. He knew that they knew who Drake and Nelson were. And he knew that British schoolchildren found pride and inspiration in their country’s long history.
It’s harder for American leaders to follow his example. For one thing, American schoolchildren do not learn much history, and their ignorance follows them into adulthood.
A recent study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three Americans (36 percent) can actually pass a multiple choice test consisting of items taken from the U.S. Citizenship Test, which most immigrants pass easily. (Example: “Identify whether Rhode Island, Oregon, Maine, or South Dakota is a state that borders Canada.”)
Only 13 percent of those surveyed knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, even on a multiple-choice exam similar to the citizenship exam. About 60 percent didn’t know which countries the United States fought in World War II. Seventy-two percent of respondents either incorrectly identified or were unsure of which states were part of the original 13. Only 24 percent could correctly identify one thing Benjamin Franklin was famous for, with 37 percent believing he invented the lightbulb. Twelve percent thought World War II General Dwight Eisenhower led troops in the Civil War, while 6 percent thought he was a Vietnam War general. Fortunately, only two percent identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.
If it’s any consolation (and it isn’t), the situation is no better in Great Britain. If Churchill were alive today, he would have to find something other than history to leaven his oratory. In a 2008 survey of British teenagers (cited in Andrew Roberts’s excellent biography of the man), 20 percent thought Churchill was a fictional character, while 58 percent thought Sherlock Holmes and 47 percent thought Eleanor Rigby were real people. Continue reading