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Living surrounded by fakes

Columbia University students attend a rally in support of Palestine at NYU on October 12, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Following the violent assault by Hamas on Israel, college campuses across the United States have witnessed rallies and protests that claim to support Palestine but in reality, celebrate terrorist organizations. At George Washington University, students projected slogans such as "Glory to the Martyrs" onto a campus building, a Cornell student was arrested for threatening to sexually assault and kill Jewish students, and instances of anti-Semitic assaults and vandalism have been reported on several campuses.

This situation highlights the extent to which we have left a generation of young people vulnerable to misinformation, social media manipulation, and malicious actors. The shocking support for Hamas' attack among young adults is based on a lack of historical knowledge and a simplistic understanding of justice and victimhood, where acts of terrorism are justified as reactions to "colonial privilege."

This problem begins well before students reach college. A 2018 poll found that 41 percent of adult Americans could not identify Auschwitz as a Nazi concentration camp. Only 66 percent of millennials knew about Auschwitz, and 22 percent had never heard of the Holocaust. Despite the phrase "Never forget," the lack of knowledge among young people is concerning.

These findings are consistent with the National Assessment of Educational Progress's history and geography assessment, which shows that only 13 percent of a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders are "proficient" in U.S. history, and only 22 percent in civics. These results represent a significant decline over the past decade.

The trend of focusing on skills over facts and the shift away from traditional historical narratives and moral certainties in favor of critical theories began in the 1980s. During this time, Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States" was published, which recast America's story as one of unbroken villainy and oppression. Although the work was often inaccurate, it was highly influential and incorporated into high school curricula nationwide.

The aim of Zinn's work, as well as that of the modern-day "1619 Project," was not to provide a balanced view of history but to instill in young people the belief that America and its allies are oppressive colonial powers. According to the creator of the 1619 Project, the United States is a "slavocracy."

A teacher from an affluent community recently expressed concern about the lack of historical understanding among students. Despite living close to the state capital and having well-educated parents and highly regarded schools, many students struggle to grasp the historical context of current events.

A teacher recognizes the importance of geography, history, religion, economics, and philosophy in comprehending the complexities of the Israel-Gaza conflict. However, these subjects are often taught inadequately or inconsistently in schools. In a RAND survey last year, K-12 teachers prioritized environmental activism over knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions in civics education.

Teachers who prioritize content-free skills like critical thinking and conflict resolution without a solid foundation in history, geography, economics, and political systems, cannot equip students with the necessary knowledge to understand the world around them. This is evident in the 2020 RAND survey, where only 43% of high school civics teachers deemed it essential for graduates to know about historical periods like the Civil War and the Cold War. Similarly, less than two-thirds believed that graduates should understand the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Critical thinking cannot occur in a vacuum. Without a solid foundation in history, geography, economics, and political systems, individuals cannot form meaningful independent judgments about events like the Israel-Gaza conflict.

This lack of knowledge is particularly concerning in light of the recent viral spread of Osama bin Laden's "Letter to America" on TikTok. It is unlikely that Generation Z is actively seeking wisdom from mass murderers. However, as they navigate the vast world of social media, youth with limited understanding of 9/11 and its aftermath are encountering a long-deceased figure offering a semblance of historical context and moral clarity.

The void left by the retreat of academic rigor and traditional norms has been filled by moral relativism and disdain for Western civilization, leading to the paradoxical situation of progressive students hailing Hamas as an ally despite its abhorrent ideology and oppressive practices. This is a result of the reality that some citizens want to live in a very different kind of society and are willing to use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate and harm people they disagree with.

To address these challenges, university presidents should mandate that their education schools develop comprehensive and coherent curricula in history, geography, and ethics. These curricula should be actively promoted, and teachers should be trained in their effective implementation. Lawmakers and school boards must demand that schools prioritize the substance of history and civics education, moving beyond mere lip service about cultivating content-free skills. By reviving our commitment to the truths we once held self-evident, we can significantly impact the future of the American experiment.


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