Trump’s Problem with History is Our Own
Much has been made of President Donald Trump’s recent comments about the Civil War and the role Andrew Jackson may or may not have been able to play in preventing that conflict. Several professional historians have expressed their shock, anger, and embarrassment at this latest display of the President’s seemingly elementary-school-level knowledge of U.S. history. Others have stated their fears of how President Trump’s shallow understanding of history will inform his domestic policy agenda and the country’s diplomatic relations with foreign allies and enemies.
As an historian and lecturer in history, I share in the concern over the President’s historical illiteracy. His lack of knowledge of the past would not be so alarming if he did not occupy the historically important office that he does. But what also alarms me is that in terms of historical illiteracy, President Trump perfectly represents the people of the nation he leads.
A 2015 survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) described most people in the United States “alarmingly ignorant of America’s history and heritage.” The ACTA found that 10 percent of American college graduates identified television personality “Judge Judy” as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, that approximately 40 percent of graduates could correctly identify a requirement for a constitutional amendment’s ratification, and that 60 percent of them knew that Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war. A previous ACTA survey from 2012 yielded similarly low results. “When surveys repeatedly show that college graduates do not understand the fundamental processes of our government and the historical forces that shaped it, the problem is much greater than simple lack of factual knowledge. It is a dangerous sign of civic disempowerment,” the ACTA stated.
Our system of government depends on all of us knowing and exercising our rights while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to one another to guarantee those rights.
A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center demonstrated encroaching civic disengagement and civic disempowerment. Pew reported that only about 33 percent of people surveyed knew how many women served on the Supreme Court, that only 52 percent of those surveyed identified the current party make-up of the Senate, and that only 51 percent recognized Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren from a photo array that included three other women in Congress.
Such levels of historical illiteracy and civic disengagement are long-standing. Gallup reported in 2003 that 53 percent of Americans did not know that the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the “Bill of Rights,” that 33 percent did not know who delivered the Gettysburg Address, that 42 percent did not know the name be the national anthem, and that 67 percent did not know who wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
To be sure, some will say that knowing and being able to recall a myriad of historical facts (or “factoids”) only comes in handy while playing “Jeopardy!” or “Trivial Pursuit.” But it is important to understand that political experiments like American democracy is not a game. Our system of government depends on all of us knowing and exercising our rights while simultaneously fulfilling our responsibilities to one another to guarantee those rights. We must do this “in order to form a more perfect Union.” That ideal of a “more perfect Union,” by the way, is enshrined in the Preamble to our Constitution, a document which I hope you will read if you have not done so already.