The War on History
Populism is on the march. More and more leaders who support globalization and liberal agendas are falling out of favor with their peoples. This pattern is spanning the globe. Many societies have reached a tipping point where fundamental social change or inclusion in federal organizations (like the European Union) must be either fully embraced or rejected. United States President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory, for example, has caused many to be fearful of American democracy. It has also stirred fears of populists being elected in other democracies.
The threat to democracy is bigger than one election cycle. Evidence shows that a growing number of today’s youth have a diminished view of democracy as a viable form of government.
In a July report titled “The Danger of Deconsolidation,” Harvard University researcher Yascha Mounk and University of Melbourne political scientist Roberto Stefan Foa explored some dangerous trends among American millennials. The researchers drew their data from World Values Surveys of Europe and America between 1995 and 2014. The data showed that many millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are increasingly supportive of political radicalism and autocratic alternatives to democracy.
The study showed that while 43 percent of older Americans object to the idea of a military coup, only 19 percent of millennials do. In Europe, 36 percent of millennials object to coups, as opposed to 53 percent of older citizens. Mounk and Foa wrote in their report:
In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule”—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just 1 in 16 respondents agreed with that position; today, 1 in 6 agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and those who want experts rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
A disturbingly high number of millennials in America and in Western Europe look more and more favorably upon undemocratic governments. It appears a high minority would rather have Julius Caesar or Benito Mussolini reign in the land of the free.
The study also points out that only around 30 percent of millennials see the civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution as “absolutely essential” in democracy (compared to 41 percent of older Americans). Around a quarter of U.S. millennials believe that free elections are not important to a democracy.
Nearly 25 percent of young Americans, millennials and teenagers, believe that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run the United States. That is significantly higher than most other age demographics. In 1995, 16 to 17 percent of young Americans thought democracy was a poor way to run the country.
Having rejected some of America’s fundamental political values, more and more millennials are becoming susceptible to being swayed into radicalism. Politicians and corporations are looking to empower the youth—yet they may do so at our own peril.
Identifying the Cause
Mounk and Foa point to the problem of deconsolidation, or the breakdown of support for democracy, which historically has led to sudden collapse. They point out three fundamental issues in their report:
In the famous formulation of Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, democracies are consolidated when they are the “only game in town.” This metaphor is as elusive as it is evocative. What does it mean, in concrete terms, for democracy to be the only game in town? In our view, the degree to which a democracy is consolidated depends on three key characteristics: the degree of popular support for democracy as a system of government; the degree to which anti-system parties and movements are weak or nonexistent; and the degree to which the democratic rules are accepted.
When a democracy becomes deconsolidated, it leads to a breakdown in popular support for democratic institutions, strengthening of anti-system parties, and increasing lawless attitude among the elected and the electorate. In America especially, we see all three of these conditions. Approval rating for Congress was at an embarrassingly low 13 percent early this year. Many anti-American forces have been at work in the government for decades, and a populist won the presidential election. Above all, there is an attitude of lawlessness and resentment toward the U.S. Constitution, especially from academia and the Obama administration. But this attitude has also been increasingly apparent in the average American citizen.
What caused this shift toward radicalism? These sorts of issues are never monocausal; family breakdown, economic woes and progressive social trends have all contributed. But there is another cause that directly correlates with these undemocratic trends in our young people: the decades-long decline in teaching history in American public schools and universities.
The millennial generation has become a victim of ignorance and distortion of truth. History instructs us on the failures and triumphs of the past so we can avoid the bad and repeat the good. The finds by Mounk and Foa suggest that young people do not understand the basics of their own history or the warnings trumpeted by the sands of time.
The War on History
The American Historical Association (aha) released a report showing that between the 2012–2013 school year and the 2014–2015 school year, there was a 7.6 percent decline in undergraduate enrollments in history. The survey asked 123 history departments about their enrollments; of those departments, 96 reported decreases, 55 of which had decreases of 10 percent or more.
The decrease in history degrees conferred over the same period is the greatest change, up or down, over the past 15 years. Millennials showed a marked disinterest in learning about history at the secondary level. Fewer young people learning from the past may explain why a rising minority are more accepting of military coups and authoritarian regimes. It is easy to believe an alternative to democracy is better when you don’t understand it.
However, even if someone is interested in learning history at American universities, what sort of courses can they find?
The aha pointed out in another report published in December 2015 that over the past 40 years, classic intellectual history is losing ground in the composition of history faculties.
Between 1975 and 2015, history studies regarding women and gender increased 797 percent, and the faculty share of those studies also increased from 1 percent to nearly 10 percent. In the same period, environmental history grew from 0.2 percent to 2.7 percent. Race and ethnicity studies grew from 0.7 percent to 2.1 percent—a 220 percent increase! At the same time, faculty specializing in legal and constitutional history declined from 3 percent to 2 percent. Faculty specializing in intellectual history have declined drastically from 10.3 percent to 5 percent. Diplomatic and economic history also declined about 5 and 3 percent respectively in faculty composition. One core history subject that increased over the past 40 years was military history.
These increases in specialized history have been accompanied by a decrease in the education of fundamental, core subjects vital to national well-being, such as the Constitution, the Civil War, and general history of Western civilization.
In an October 28 speech titled “The Decline and Fall of History,” historian and professor Niall Ferguson addressed the unimportant and overspecialized history being taught in American universities. After referring to the December 2015 aha study, Ferguson related several of the specialized history courses that are available at the most prestigious universities in the U.S. These classes are taking the place of content covering the lives of great leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
A small sample of such classes include Harvard’s “Emotions in History.” Yale offers “Indigenous Religious History,” “Witchcraft and Society in Colonial America,” “History of the Supernatural” and “Sex, Life and Generation,” to name a few. Stanford provides a study on “Mad Women: the History of Women and Mental Illness in the U.S.”
While studies into such subjects have their own time and place, they should not be the focus nor the majority of the content being taught. Other specialties, such as the history of race, gender and the environment are important to understand, but they should never replace the teaching of what America is, how it became a nation, and the key institutions of freedom.
This lack of education may be a key reason why so many millennials would tolerate a military coup or the removal of all checks and balances in the U.S. government. If young people do not realize how the American government has been a blessing to its citizens, or how American institutions of freedom have changed the world for the better, they will reject these fundamental tenets of American society. What is more, ignorance of world history leaves an individual without any guide by which to make decisions. A strong autocratic leader may appear attractive unless he is compared to the historical facts of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Furthermore, these specialized classes usually carry a politicized message. The study of subjects such as race, gender, religion and the environment are popular because they are social issues. If the focus of the course is too narrow, how the subject matter fits into the arc of history will be lost and wrong conclusions can be drawn. The forest can easily be lost through the trees. It also can create an unfair bias in which the truth and the past are distorted.
There is one more question to ask: Why would American history instructors neglect teaching the most essential parts of history? Not only are less millennials enrolling in secondary courses, the kind of history being taught is also deteriorating. The problem lies in the ideas of those teaching history.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, American politics became much more liberal. The various civil and social rights issues sparked a wave of change. It also opened the door for far more radical ideas to be accepted into the mainstream of American academia. American education readily adopted the liberalism of German rationalism at the beginning of the 20th century. This provided the foundation for American universities to shift even further left during the Cold War. Communism became very popular among professors, and this bias was introduced into the classroom. In his booklet Great Again, Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry writes:
In the 1960s and ’70s, America had many problems with rioting and violence on college campuses. Educators would ask who was in charge, and in almost every case, there was nobody in charge except the people who were rioting.
Soon, the New Left began to get into those institutions and gain control. It was in the education system that the left got its foothold into the nation: first in colleges, then high schools and even elementary schools. It is from the education system that a nation gets its leadership. Where did the ideas of America’s leaders today come from? From our educational institutions.
Further proof is in the revisionist movement that occurred during the Cold War era. This is once again becoming a persistent problem, especially as social justice warriors seek to justify their political beliefs by using history. John Lukacs wrote in his book Remembered Past:
The third, and much larger, wave of revisionism came not from the New Right but from the New Left. These were the historians who during the fretful 1960s attempted to rewrite the origins of the Cold War with Russia, arguing and claiming that American foreign policy and aggressiveness were at least responsible, if not more, for the coming of the Cold War than was the Soviet Union. … Unlike the revisionists of the 1920s and 1940s, these authors had little opposition from most of their historian colleagues: for such was the, generally leftist, intellectual tendency of the American 1960s.
The students who rioted on university campuses against the Vietnam War or protested over civil rights are now the instructors. Individuals with radical political views, and especially those who espouse communism, have become very powerful voices in the American educational system. Many view communism as an alternative to the U.S. Constitution. President Barack Obama is a product of such radical instructors (read America Under Attack for more background on the president’s education).
Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan stated that democracy must be the “only game in town” if it is to be secure. Why isn’t democracy the only game in town? Have millennials, scholars and educators found a better alternative to democracy? There is a twofold problem. First, the right kind of history is not being taught. Second, an antidemocratic, radical-left worldview is being taught at most universities. The fruits are plain to see.
A Law of History
The statistics reported by Mounk and Foa do not portend a revolution against the American government, but they do show a disturbing trend among a minority of millennials. Democracies die at the hands of those they govern. While there are many causes for this discontent, ignorance of the alternatives may very well be a major explanation. Unless the deficit in historical education is fixed, these statistics will only become worse.
The war on history is being waged by our own educational system to the detriment of our people. This self-defeating trend can only lead to terrible consequences. Do we not owe it to our forefathers—whose strength of character led them to dare the odds to forge this great nation, those whose deeds were noble and worthy—to change our wretched state? Do we not owe it to all of those who lived and died for us, and who through prayer, blood, sweat and tears changed the course of history?
A law of history is that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. We may well add, those who fail to teach history are doomed to become history.