A 2019 survey of 41,000 Americans conducted by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only 27% of those under 45 across the country demonstrate a basic knowledge of American history. And only 4 in 10 Americans passed the exam.
"Unfortunately, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation has validated what studies have shown for a century: Americans don't possess the history knowledge they need to be informed and engaged citizens,"
- Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine
This isn't an article bashing history teachers or claiming that Americans are lazy. No, I want to encourage you, my fellow American that our history is worth studying, and by doing so, we will reap benefits.
The benefits of studying American history:
1. Become informed citizens.
As Levine mentioned, the benefit of studying American history is that we become intelligent voters. As voters, we have to make solid decisions about present problems, and these problems are based on the knowledge of the past.
Furthermore, studying American history can motivate us to vote. When we read about the millions of people that died for us to be able to exercise the right to vote, we don't mind sitting in long lines or waking up a little earlier to get to the voting poll.
Finally, by studying American history we can better understand how a policy could work out. We can ask ourselves questions like:
"What factors played into the 2008 Financial Crisis?"
"When were interest rates highest in America and why?"
"When was crime highest in my city and what was going on around that time?"
Some of these answers may be easier to answer than others but regardless, history can help us prepare for present and future problems. As a result, we can be financially more stable, keep our families safer, and be more confident when policy and events change around us.
2. Become more understanding of our neighbors.
Studying American history helps us understand the people around us. As many Americans declare, "We are a melting pot." The people around us look different, speak different, and cook different. The bottom line is we live among people with different values, traditions, and customs.
Living in such melting pot has its friction as it can be difficult to live alongside someone from a different culture. But by studying American history we can be more tolerant towards individuals and their preferences—this is the American way.
3. Connect with older generations.
It can be difficult to connect with older people we don't know personally. However, it is very important to make a connection with our elders outside of our families because we can learn a thing or two from them. In addition, it is healthy for people living in a functioning society to engage with people from all walks of life. American history helps us to do that with our elders by allowing us to create a shared reference point with them.
For example, if you are a server and the patron sitting at your table is wearing a Korean War Veteran hat, you can politely them "Were you stationed around Incheon or Seoul?" Even if the patron says "No." they will likely appreciate you because you know a little bit about the war. They may share a story with you, after all, the Korean War is known as the "Forgotten War."
This doesn't only apply to veterans. You can ask people questions evolving around important events. For example, you can ask people where they were when Martin Luther King was killed or where they were during the Apollo 11 moon landing.
4. Grow an appreciation for how far we have come as a country.
Every country has its pros and cons, and America is no different. But in a time where daily news coverage talks about shootings, inflation, healthcare, and political division, it is easy to put your head down and mope around. But studying American history can give us context and help us understand that things are not as bad as they sound.
Take political division for example, New polling by the Economist and YouGov found that 40% of Americans believe a Civil War is at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years.
Now, let's touch the surface of some basic facts about the American Civil War (1861-1865). The American Civil War was decades in the making, evolving around the question of should new states be allowed to have slavery or not. Over the last decade, our country hasn't been brewing over a singular policy matter so that is one reason why the times aren't similar. Next, let us look at some numbers.
Number of military fatalities in all major wars involving the United States from 1775 to 2022
This graph shows the number of soldiers who died in the Civil War between 1861 and 1865, generally estimated at 620,000, is about equal to the total of American deaths in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined.
To give even more context, this war had brothers, neighbors, and churchgoers pinned against one another. Given all this information, one can agree that most Americans are not on board with taking up arms against their brother or basketball coach anytime soon.
5. Understand where our families came from.
Part of the beauty of America is that we are an infant nation, researching our domestic family history is easier compared to someone from France or Spain. For example, let's say you are part Dutch, you can begin searching online where the Dutch settled in America. You will find that the Dutch began a settlement on this strange island later known as Manhattan.
Although you may not be able to track back your bloodline to Manhattan you will have a clue of where to start. In addition, you can research your family names in online libraries and begin building a family timeline.
Why do this?
Well, our bloodlines are one of a kind—your grandmother isn't my grandmother, that is special. In your family research, you may discover your great-great-grandfather was a poet, meanwhile you too find yourself savoy with words. This can create a valuable connection to your ancestor because you may feel a bit more confident and take more pride in your writing ability. On the other hand, you may find a pattern of heart attack deaths within your bloodline and decide to see a doctor because of it.
The moral of the story: you never know what you will find unless you start digging. As an American, you have the resources to dig whereas other citizens don't.
Regardless of what stage of life we are in, history can help us. It can help us grow closer to our neighbors, protect our families, vote confidently, appreciate the present, and understand where we came from.
Woods, Amanda. “Americans Don't Know Much about Nation's History: Survey.” New York Post, New York Post, 15 Feb. 2019, https://nypost.com/2019/02/15/americans-dont-know-much-about-nations-history-survey/.
O'Neill, Aaron. “United States: War Fatalities 1775-2022.” Statista, 2 Jan. 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1009819/total-us-military-fatalities-in-american-wars-1775-present/.