The Public is Ignorant of History as Impeachment Proceeds

Jeff Koterba color cartoon for 6/16/2011 "History"

recent polls on where the country stands on the impeachment inquiry process going into the holidays show a very divided country.

While the organization 538 shows that the average of all polls favors the impeachment inquiry by 52 percent to 42 percent margin, the numbers shift to a narrower 48 to 44 division when voters are asked if Mr. Trump should be impeached and removed.

Real Clear Politics showed separate polls averaging a similar 48 to 46 result in favor of impeachment and removal.

Historically, these are bad signs for Individual One.

During the Clinton Impeachment Process, no more than a third of the country favored President Clinton’s impeachment and removal from office.

Furthermore, Trump, after only two months of the impeachment inquiry, is polling just under what Richard Nixon performed at just before he was forced to resign in 1974 after a year and a half of the Watergate Hearings and court fights.

So why is the country polarized after all the hearings with even Republican-friendly witnesses contradicting Administration talking points, the obstruction of Congress by the Administration in withholding witnesses and documents, Mick Mulvaney and Donald Trump’s public statements to the media who were filming them, and the transcript which showed a far from a ‘perfect’ call?

Cynicism and ignorance

Part of the answer to this is the increasing cynicism that has grown since Watergate towards our governing institutions.

Another answer is the proliferation of right-wing media echo chambers like Fox Island, Breibart, and Info Wars where alternative realities spun from the reactionary fringe have brainwashed a significant portion of the American Citizenry.

A final answer, expanding on the foundations of the first two, is that a substantial part of the nation’s populace is dangerously ignorant of United States History and Government.

Unfortunately, this is not news. Since the 1980s with the Nation At Risk Report and the Bradley Commission on History at Schools, public servants have known that students in K-12 and college have not been taking enough history, government, and economics in school.

A recent poll conducted by the Economist/YouGov weekly tracking poll showed that Most Republicans think Donald Trump is a better leader than Abraham Lincoln.

Let that sink in. Most Republicans, probably ignorant of history, think the person endorsed by the KKK and who thrives on division is a better leader than the President who freed the slaves and presided over victory in the American Civil War.

It gets worse.

Recent surveys from both right and left-leaning organizations have shown that students have not improved since their parents in the 1980s.

For example, a 2015 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni showed that less than half of college graduates knew:

  • The United States Senate holds the impeachment trial following the House referral.
  • The term lengths of members of Congress.
  • That only Congress has the power to declare war.
  • The Constitutional Amendment Process.

Sadly, almost ten percent of the college graduates thought Judge Judy served on the United States Supreme Court.

A more current 2018 study by the same organization found that:

  • 41% of American citizens did not know Auschwitz was a Nazi Concentration Camp.
  • Half of the respondents thought the Civil War took place before the American Revolution.
  • The people recognize some of Michael Jackson’s songs more than the words from the Bill of Rights.

The American Bar Association conducted a survey in March 2019 and found that:

  • Just under 50 percent of American Citizens knew John Roberts was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
  • Ten percent thought the Declaration of Independence freed the slaves and another ten percent thought the Bill of Rights was the Declaration.
  • Many were unsure of the contents of the Bill of Rights. More than half thought flag burning was not protected expression.
  • Some Americans felt that constitutional protections were only for citizens and that noncitizens did not have to pay taxes.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in 2018 organized a survey of American History based on questions asked of immigrants taking the citizenship exam. The results were that only a third of naturalized American citizens would pass the test immigrants need to master in order to become new citizens.

This ignorance of history and basic civics only corrodes our country from within and helps those charlatans and demagogues that profit from it. 

How can this historical and civic illiteracy occur and be allowed to fester?

Forgetting the past

While allowing for the inevitably that people will forget facts that they have learned (or memorized for the test) in school, there are structural reasons that people are ignorant in history, civics, and current affairs.

Using Arizona as a quasi case study, high school students are only required to take one year of World History, one year of United States History, and a semester each of Government and Economics.

Consider that World History is supposed to cover all of Human Civilization from Pre History to the present and the United States course probes events starting with the Pre Columbian cultures to the present, is it any wonder that a substantial number of the students, no matter how talented the instructor, is bound not to master all the important historical concepts.

In Arizona’s state college system, students have a choice of fulfilling their general studies’ historical and humanities education requirements. They have a menu of potential selections ranging from general survey history classes to more in-depth topical areas to fulfill their general study requirements. While these classes are undoubtedly very interesting and are taught by talented and inspiring instructors, there is no requirement that students at the college level take one course in general history or government.

Educators and public servants in the State Legislatures across the country should strongly consider increasing requirements in history and government so students can more easily master and retain vital concepts this country needs its active and informed citizens to know if it wants to remain a federal democratic republic.

If not, the danger of falling into an Orwellian pit of doublespeak, conditioning, and propaganda designed to perpetuate control by an oligarchical few, as evidenced by those who have subscribed to the Big Lies espoused by the reactionary fringe during the impeachment inquiry, will prevail.

For the sake of the American Ideal, this cannot be allowed to happen.

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David Gordon
Living in Arizona since his family moved to Tempe from New York in 1982, David Gordon has three degrees from Arizona State University and the University of Phoenix in History, Political Science, and Secondary School Administration. A highly qualified Social Studies instructor and Certified School Principal, Mr. Gordon owned his own charter school, Grand Canyon College Preparatory Academy from 1997-2016. The school served students in grades 6-12 in the East Valley of Maricopa County. Many of the graduates of GCP earned college credit for free while still attending high school, some completing the first year of college before graduating. Among the speakers at the school's graduations were noted figures in Arizona Politics like Harry Mitchell, David Schweikert, Juan Mendes, Andrew Sherwood, and John Huppenthal. Mr. Gordon also participated in the revisions of the Arizona History and Social Studies standards. In January 2017, Mr. Gordon started the political blog Twenty-First Century Progressive Bull Moose. It has a global following and routinely comments on the political events of the day. Mr. Gordon also helps administer the Facebook page Living Blue in Arizona. He is also currently writing a series of Young Adult science fiction novels which incorporate the themes of time travel and its impact on history. Mr. Gordon is very happy to be asked to join the Blog for Arizona team and hopes to spread the progressive word to make Arizona a better place for everyone.