History is a Thing of the Past

Jamestown was settled in 1607.

Give yourself bonus points if you knew that, because Americans aren’t very good at history by and large, and never have been.

“There were reports in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of surveys showing people were astoundingly ignorant of the history we think all Americans should know,” says James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association. We of the early 21st Century are apparently honoring that tradition.

The Constitution was written in 1787.

A survey of college students taken by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation (psst…he was a president) finds that 60% don’t know how the Constitution gets ratified, and believe that the Founding Fathers established the United States as a Christian nation..

Goodman isn’t concerned about the details necessarily, but what he says is lacking in most people’s understanding of history is context. “Every American should know how to find any important document on their phone,” he suggests. If you can do that, you can find the date, who signed it, what the weather was like in Philadelphia that day and the name of the street the Pennsylvania State House (it’s Liberty Hall today) was on. It’s about the context, stupid.

“I don’t care if people memorize the date,” he says of the signing of the Constitution on Chestnut Street. “It’s important to know it was written and ratified when only a small portion of people had the right to vote.” Male white landowners, specifically. African slaves, native Indians, and women did not receive a franchise to participate in democracy until later.

It seems it’s those contextual details that evade many. More Americans know the names of the Three Stooges than know the three branches of government.

Executive, Legislative, and…Curly?

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