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Guest column | James Pettican

Students need a history lesson

From grade school through grad school, I always enjoyed my history classes. Apparently, that's not true for many of today's students.

Current surveys show that present day Americans are woefully weak in their knowledge of history and, also, political science. Many test answers would be funny if they weren't also so sad. They get the dates of wars confused and have our generals fighting in the wrong battles. As for famous quotes like "I shall return", our young people often have no idea who said it and wouldn't recognize his name if you gave it to them. Poor old formal and autocratic Douglas MacArthur would not like that one bit. As for Corregidor, it might just as well be in the Red Sea as far as our present-day scholars are concerned. And no, youngsters, it really isn't red.

Most of our students know who the president is but maybe that's because they hear their elders arguing about him so much. As to naming the vice president, well, if you try asking that question, lots of luck.

Supreme Court or Congress? Name even one member of either body. No? Then, try naming famous court decisions. From Dred Scott to Roe vs. Wade, you're likely to draw blank stares or a total lack of interest from far too many of today's young folks.

History inadequacy isn't just an individual phenomenon. It affects countries too. Unfortunately, we, as a nation, fail to learn from history also. The French experience in trying to hold onto what was then known as French Indochina should have taught us to keep our boots off the ground in Southeast Asia. But, no, we flunked that class too and ended up in the Vietnam War, which we eventually lost after an enormous waste of lives and dollars.

More recently, the Soviet experience should have taught us to stay out of Afghanistan, not really a nation but a loose confederation of tribes two centuries behind the rest of the world. But no, we have been flailing away there for a decade now, pouring lives and treasure into a place that is both unconquerable and ungovernable. So, the folly continues.

In Asia, we also fought the Korean War, knowing full well that the Chinese were waiting to rush in. At least, we got a so-called truce out of that one, a truce that seemingly goes on forever.

Invading Iraq was the personal whim of a failed president and we have paid a high price there too.

Now, our leave-taking is about to take place but the bombs are still going off even though we sometimes pretend they're not.

Back around 1917, the British found themselves bogged down in Iraq. What to do? They hastily put together a semblance of a government and then left before it could fall apart. Not long afterward, it did. And so another example entered the history books. But I guess we didn't read them.

Historians tell us that World War II was the last war that could be justified. I was drafted back then and, I guess, am considered part of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation. Whether or not future historians will agree with that description, I don't know. But at least our country knew, with certainty, why it was at war.

History, it's a wonderful subject. I just wish it could attract more students.

Retired journalist James Pettican lives in Palm Harbor.

Students need a history lesson 08/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 12, 2011 9:50pm]
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