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Ignorance about history isn't bliss

The recent story revealing that high school students have a flimsy grasp of history was about as surprising as Cher getting a new boyfriend.

Anyone not residing in a cave in Afghanistan knows that, generally speaking, Americans do not want to know very much about the past. What we really want is the next thing.

Our nation seems to suffer from collective attention deficit disorder. How else can one explain having a spate of six-month anniversary TV shows about the awful events of Sept. 11?

Did the networks think that if they waited a year we might have forgotten? Probably.

Another aspect of our collective lack of attention has turned up in TV commercials. The same commercial is shown in the same commercial break during a program. When you have to repeat an ad just seconds after it is shown, you know there must be something wrong with how we allow information to pass through our brains at lightning speed, never to be thought of again.

This inability to absorb detail and this yearning for the "now" often is reflected in quiz shows such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? when a younger contestant uses the alibi that something "happened before I was born" to explain why he is clueless as to the correct answer to a question.

How sad we are as a nation when history courses are shrinking at our colleges and when we yearn for the next version of Windows more than we care about what shaped our country and the world.

I have a clear memory of only one war because I served in the Vietnam War, but that never prevented me from wanting to learn about all of the wars our country has fought. Why did we get in them? What were the issues, and what would have happened to our country had they come out differently? These are all things most Americans need to know to put our current war against terrorism in its proper context.

The apparent fear teachers have of boring their students by talking about the past is reflected even in historical specials on PBS and on the History Channel. Viewers may have noticed that many of the people on these programs speak in the present tense, using awkward phrases such as "And then Lincoln decides ...," as if we are expected to be in suspense as to what Lincoln did decide.

It is just fine to use the past tense in speaking about history, especially since it is our past we are talking about here. It has shaped us just as surely as our parents helped to shape us. We might even talk about students learning those awfully boring statistics called dates so we not only know how and why something happened but also when it happened to again put things in context.

How impoverished we have all become if we are responsible only for those things that happened after we were born. The Civil War should still be capable of moving us all, and World War II and the Korean War should be as fresh in our minds as the name of Madonna's daughter.

Not just wars, but all of history helps us put life in context. To identify a knowledge of history as something that belongs in a Trivial Pursuit game is to degrade what makes us Americans and all of the forces that make up our current world, here and abroad.

Until we fix our national attention deficit disorder and until we give more respect to history at our high schools and college, we will continue to fail to pass on our past. And people will still justify their ignorance by saying it happened before they were born.

_ Douglas Spangler is a writer and former university administrator. He lives in Palm Harbor.