At the beginning of a new year, it's hard to avoid the question: where are we going? What will our future be like? Does America, does freedom, does Western civilization even have a future?
I date my career as a professional writer to an op-ed I published in the Los Angeles Times in the early 1980s. I was a graduate student in English and was also teaching undergraduate composition courses. One of the challenges I faced in the classroom was this: when, in a search for possible topics for my students to write about, I brought up things that I thought of as falling under the category of general knowledge, I found over and over again that most of my students didn't know what I was talking about. They didn't know history. Their knowledge of politics, geography, art, and literature was, at best, extremely spotty.
Yes, a few of them were very well informed about some sport or other, or about this or that singer or rock group or actor or TV show, but there was not much overlap between one kid's knowledge and another's. There was, in fact, hardly any knowledge that they all shared -- and these were students at what was considered a pretty decent college. So I wrote a piece about it.
Thirty years later, the situation is, by all accounts, even worse than it was then -- not just in America, but across the Western world. And the problem isn't just that they don't know who wrote War and Peace. It's that they don't know basic things that could mean the difference in the future between war and peace, poverty and wealth, slavery and freedom.
In 2007, a study of Swedish young people by a group called Information about Communism revealed that ninety percent of Swedes between the ages of fifteen and twenty didn't know which foreign capital is closest to Stockholm, and most didn't know which countries border on their own.
Moreover, most of them had no idea what Communism is. Ninety percent didn't know the meaning of the word "Gulag." Forty percent thought that Communism had actually brought increased prosperity to the people living under it.
"They lack understanding of basic concepts such as dictatorship and democracy, and this is unpleasant," said Camilla Andersson of Information about Communism. Swedish education minister Jan Björklund, asked about the study results, lamented "that Swedish history teaching is so limited." But the problem, as I noted at the time, was not "limited" history teaching but slanted history teaching. Kids, not just in Sweden but throughout the Western world, are fed pretty lies about Communism and ugly lies about America, capitalism, and Western civilization generally.
A similar study, performed in 2008 by the think tank Civita, found that "two of three young Norwegians between 14 and 20 years old have not heard of Pol Pot and the Gulag," while 34.5% thought that Communism had "contributed to increased prosperity in some places in the world."
Just the other day the Daily Mail ran an article in which Dominic Sandbrook recalled a survey conducted in Britain about a decade ago. Who, it asked, were the most important people in British history? Princess Diana came in third, John Lennon seventh. "Recent polls," noted Sandbrook, "show that nine out of ten adults [in Britain] can name all David Beckham's children, yet one in three thinks Churchill was a fictional character and one in four believes Hadrian's Wall was built to keep out the French."
Yes, that's right: one in three British people thinks Winston Churchill was a fictional character.
"Through no fault of their own," wrote Sandbrook, "thousands of our children are leaving school every year ignorant of what their parents and grandparents once took for granted: the inspirational, heart-warming knowledge of what we all once recognised as our national story."
Needless to say, the same goes for American kids. By and large, they don't know much about the American national story, and what they do "know" is, to an alarming extent, anti-American propaganda straight out of books like Howard Zinn's poisonous -- and ubiquitous -- People's History of the United States. Instead of learning the facts of history, and learning to appreciate how and why America became (as Madeleine Albright put it) "the indispensable nation," all too many of them are indoctrinated with identity politics and multiculturalism -- with an ideology, in short, that teaches them not to appreciate their heritage of freedom but, at best, to be barely aware of it and, at worst, to mock it, dismiss it, or deny it.
If knowledge is power, ignorance is weakness. A Western world run by people most of whom either think Winston Churchill was a fictional character or are barely aware of who he was and what he did -- and how radically different their own lives would be if he had never existed -- is the stuff of nightmares.
The West is, after all, engaged in a struggle on many fronts with a civilization (to use the term loosely) that has a long, long memory. It's no exaggeration to say that this struggle will decide the future of freedom. And the grim truth is that freedom stands very little chance when those who are supposed to be fighting for it are so innocent of history that they can't properly appreciate just how hard-won and precious a legacy that freedom is.