“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” The American founders understood the importance of studying history.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years. What would the Founding Fathers think about the American people’s attitude toward history today? History is undervalued, deemphasized, rewritten or ignored across the board. Today, 10 percent of Americans think Judge Judy is a Supreme Court justice, 43 percent don’t know which amendment grants them freedom of speech, and more than 50 percent are unable to name the three branches of their own government.
Today, you can graduate from George Washington University—with a history degree—without ever having taken a single college-level United States history class.
That is shocking and ironic. But George Washington University isn’t the only one. Many top-notch U.S. colleges no longer require any U.S. history courses to acquire history degrees. In July 2016, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported that less than a third of what are considered the best U.S. colleges and universities require history majors to take a single U.S. history course.
Is it any wonder, then, that America has become one of the least historically aware nations in the world?
Avoiding Uncomfortable Truths
In a Jan. 22, 2017, New York Post article, author Karol Markowicz wrote, “A 2014 report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that an abysmal 18 percent of American high school kids were proficient in U.S. history. When colleges such as Stanford decline to require Western Civilization classes or high schools propose changing their curriculum so that history is taught only from 1877 onward (this happened in North Carolina), it’s merely a blip in our news cycle” (emphasis added throughout).
This article cited a 2012 study which found that 88 percent of elementary schoolteachers consider teaching history a low priority. Many of these teachers are afraid to teach U.S. history, the article argued, because they don’t want to offendany of their students—or their students’ parents.
“As colleges around the country see protests to remove Thomas Jefferson’s statues from their campuses, it’s becoming the norm to erase the parts of history that we find uncomfortable. It’s not difficult to teach children that the pilgrims or Thomas Jefferson were imperfect yet still responsible for so much that is good in America” (ibid).
This explains why 82 percent of U.S. high school students aren’t proficient in U.S. history.
It doesn’t change when students get into college, either. In a New York Times article,author Diane Ravitch wrote, “If knowledge of the past is in fact relevant to our ability to understand the present and to exercise freedom of mind—as totalitarian societies, both real and fictional, acknowledge by stringently controlling what may be studied or published—then there is cause for concern about many Americans’ sense of history. The threat to our knowledge of the past comes, however, not from government censorship but from indifference and ignorance. The erosion of historical understanding seems especially pronounced among the generation under 35 ….”
Ravitch quoted an American history teacher from a Brooklyn community college as saying, “My students are not stupid, but they have an abysmal background in American, or any other kind of, history. They never heard of Daniel Webster; don’t understand the Constitution; don’t know the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties.” The history department chairman at another New York college agreed: “My students have no historical knowledge on which to draw when they enter college. They have no point of reference for understanding World War i, the Treaty of Versailles or the Holocaust.”
But the problem isn’t just that the students are ignorant about history: They don’t even care about it. “They think that everything is subjective,” this professor said. “They have plenty of attitudes and opinions, but they lack the knowledge to analyze a problem.” She believes that “we are in danger of bringing up a generation without historical memory. This is a dangerous situation.”
Ravitch concluded that “the study of history is in jeopardy” and that “a society without a sense of history is like an individual without memory.” A generation without historical memory—that is a pretty accurate description of the world we see today.
But here’s the interesting part: This article was written in 1985.
How much worse is the situation today, when U.S. history is no longer a required course even for college history degrees? Ravitch highlighted an attitude of indifference and ignorance toward history in her time—and that was more than 30 years ago! The people who were indifferent to history then are the ones who are setting college curricula in our universities today. Little wonder that history is not being taught anymore!
And When It Is Taught …
Markowicz wrote, “First grade might seem young, but it’s my daughter’s third year in the New York City public school system after pre-K and kindergarten. She goes to one of the finest public schools in the city, yet knows about George Washington exclusively from the soundtrack of the Broadway show Hamilton. She wouldn’t be able to tell you who discovered America” (op cit).
Ah yes, Hamilton. A Broadway show that recounts the story of an American founding father through hip-hop music. Hamilton exploded onto the Broadway scene in 2015, almost immediately becoming one of the most successful musicals in decades. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, said he was inspired to write the musical after reading Ron Chernow’s biography on Alexander Hamilton, statesman, congressional delegate, treasury secretary, senior officer of the United States Army, advocate of the Constitution. Miranda said Hamilton’s life reminded him of modern-day rappers like Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
The success of this production underscores Americans’ inability to digest history taught in a traditional way. Apparently, the only way to make history palatable is to set it to hip-hop music and dramatize it to the point of introducing numerous historical inaccuracies. Although the Broadway show did make Americans more historically aware of one founding father, part of why critics acclaimed it was because of the music and its novel casting of minorities as the Founding Fathers and other historical figures.
Even the more traditional forms of historical storytelling often include blatant falsehoods. The recent film Darkest Hour, for example, portrays Britain’s Winston Churchill as a hesitant leader plagued with self-doubt. Modern historians, after all—even the “conservative” ones—have to humanize the hero. He’s just like you and me, warts and all. But Winston Churchill was not like everyone else. He was right when everyone else was wrong!
At the end of Darkest Hour, there’s a wholly fictitious scene in which Churchill rides the London Tube in order to draw inspiration from ordinary Londoners about whether or not he should confront Adolf Hitler. As if the people inspired Winston Churchill to fight against Nazism! On this point, the filmmakers got it exactly backward. It was Winston Churchill who aroused a fighting spirit in the people of Britain. Had Churchill listened to ordinary Londoners or members of Parliament, he would have undoubtedly negotiated some kind of “peaceful” surrender to Herr Hitler.
“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man,” Churchill told his cabinet in 1940, refusing to mention the German monster by name! Then he said, “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
His cabinet was so moved by the speech, they shouted and cheered in support. The people of Britain rallied around their watchman.
As the American Spectator noted, “It was precisely because Churchill, through the force of his own personality as a leader, supplied his country with the fighting spirit which had been lacking up until that point that we now remember him as a great man” (February 8).
Judging by Modern ‘Standards’
In the last few years, history has experienced a bit of a pseudo-renaissance in the United States, but rarely in a positive light.
Take the recent campaign to tear down U.S. monuments, for example. After the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, the nation blew up into a controversy over celebrating historical figures. It wasn’t just a battle about a few statues. Instead, it was essentially a battle about which history is worth remembering and which history should be erased or rewritten. Because of the riots, the whole nation suddenly began paying attention to who these men were and what they did, especially the negative things. It started with a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but spread to monuments for men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
If you can’t celebrate George Washington or Abraham Lincoln for their positive contributions to their country, then who can you celebrate? Yes, many Founding Fathers were slave owners. Yes, slavery was a widespread and abominable practice in much of the world in the early modern era. Yes, these men were human and made mistakes. But today, their flaws are the only things getting attention!
What about their towering accomplishments? George Washington led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War, securing the very freedoms most Americans today take for granted. After serving two terms as president, Washington voluntarily stepped down, establishing a precedent that has continued to this day. Many people in Washington’s day actually wanted to crown him king. Without Washington’s selfless leadership and foundational example, Americans might well be living under an authoritarian regime right now.
In Visions of Glory, William Manchester said that Winston Churchill was one of those authors who believe “that the past should not be judged by the standards of the present.” Manchester took that same approach in his biography on Churchill, which is one reason why it is so good.
With most modern-day historians, however, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get to the facts of the past without them being tainted by the political agenda of the present.
The whole approach to history is wrong! What a deadly combination. On the one hand, most people don’t care enough about history to even look into it. And those who do often politicize it for their radical agenda! They make it so negative!
God’s Positive View of History
What does God think about history? History is actually one of the most effective ways to learn about the present and the future. As Herbert W. Armstrong said, history provides the vital background that we need to understand the present. Without proper context, we can never truly understand the significance of events in the world around us! As the saying goes, those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. A society that does not study its history is certain to repeat the same mistakes its ancestors made. Studying history shows us how to learn from past mistakes so we don’t have to repeat them.
Some of the reasons why people want to tear down monuments of great Americans are based on an uninformed view of history. Without the historical background, people tend to accept what they are told, especially if it backs up their particular narrative. Ignorance fuels the movement!
History is actually one of our best teachers. It is not a subject that should be skipped over, ignored or viewed negatively.
My father writes in his book The Former Prophets: “Many authorities call history our most effective teacher. … Bible history is the greatest history of all because it’s God’s history. …
“These books show that if we live the same lifestyles our forefathers did, we will attain virtually the same results—good or bad. History becomes prophecy. Not all prophecy is history, but a lot of history becomes prophecy. History prophesies the fate of nations—whether they will thrive or collapse! This is ‘a law of history.’ … It’s not about luck or happenstance. It is a law of history. If we break that law, the law breaks us!”
Yes, there are valuable lessons that we can learn from history, if we approach it with a positive mindset and an open mind, like the Bereans in Acts 17.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul emphasized the lessons we can learn from ancient Israel’s example. It made a lot of mistakes, but we can learn from those mistakes so we don’t have to repeat the same sins and reap the same punishment. Of course, ancient Israel did terrible things, but as a whole, God wants us to learn from the bad history and then emphasize the good. And we shouldn’t judge those of the past by their own flawed standards or by the flawed standards of the present, but by the one true standard: the unchanging standard of the Bible.
“Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1). Notice that: He’s talking about Israel’s history, and he says, Don’t be ignorant about this! You should know this history. God doesn’t want us to be ignorant of or indifferent to history. He wants us to study it! We are to live by every word of God (Matthew 4:4), and a substantial amount of the written word of God in the Bible is recorded history. God would not have recorded and miraculously preserved that history for thousands of years unless He wanted us to study it.
In 1 Corinthians 10:6, Paul said, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.” Verse 11 repeats the same idea: “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”
The ancient Israelites didn’t even grasp the point of their own experiences. What they went through was written down as lessons for us! That’s why the Old Testament has been preserved.
In The Book of Chronicles, my father writes about how Ezra emphasized the positive in his book, instead of the negative. There were a lot of negative events and actions he could have emphasized when covering the history of Israel’s kings—but Ezra had a different focus.
1 Chronicles 10-29 are about David’s reign. It includes a lot of history, but the main purpose of the book is a positive spiritual message: the key of David (Revelation 3:7). What makes this section on King David so unique is that it’s so positive. Ezra left out almost all the problems David had!
God saw fit to record many of David’s mistakes and sins elsewhere in the Bible. He doesn’t erase the bad and discuss only the good. But His focus is on the positive!
Ezra wanted to get people’s minds on a positive vision. They had just come back from captivity in Babylon, and it was a terrible time, much like the time we live in today. For this reason, Ezra emphasized the “good” and “virtuous” things (Philippians 4:8). The biblical book of Chronicles was written long after all the history it records had happened. Looking back, Ezra could see the whole picture, and he knew what was needed most of all. Ezra had a truly positive view of history! My father writes, “We need to know about the problems and the difficulties—but we need our emphasis on the positive!” (The Book of Chronicles).
David did many mighty works for God. His faith in God led him to defeat a giant when he was a young man. His fighting spirit inspired fierce loyalty in his soldiers. He wholeheartedly followed God’s instructions. He worked hard to prepare for the building of the temple, even though he wasn’t allowed to build it himself. He organized the priests and Levites into courses and established musicians to praise God continually.
David also had plenty of sins, and God had them recorded so that people would know about and learn from them forever. God could have written David off, like people do today with the Founding Fathers. After all, David committed adultery and murder! But God conveys such a positive view of David throughout 1 Chronicles because David himself had such a positive view of God and His work—even a positive view of godly correction within God’s overall purpose for man!
David knew how to repent—and once he had repented of his sins, God removed them as far as east is from west. We can’t write off David’s history just because David was a sinful human. God said, “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will” (Acts 13:22). David made his share of mistakes, but he also mastered repentance! And in the end, God said, He has a heart like mine! God established an everlasting kingly line through David—a throne from which Jesus Christ will rule the world!
Churchill said that the farther back you look, the farther into the future you can see. You must learn from history in order to have vision. Churchill had such clear vision that people said he was like a prophet. Where did he get that vision? From his understanding of history.
“You need vision in your family; I need vision, we all need vision, or we’re not going to succeed in life—we’re going to be brought to desolation, to ruin, we can’t stand,” my father said in a March 2004 Key of David program. “That’s just an absolute law of history.”
If we don’t know our history, then we will have no context for the present—or the future.
History today is often rewritten or ignored. But God wants us to have a positive view of history and learn its valuable lessons. If we do, we will have the necessary context to understand the world around us, and the uplifting vision of the future to inspire us to move forward even through depressing times. If we have God’s positive view of history, we will never be discouraged, because we will clearly see the amazing future that is just ahead of us.