Recent survey shows this country's 'future' doesn't know its past

Posted: Tuesday, July 03, 2001

As the nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, the results of a recent survey are cause for alarm.

In a story about that survey, The Associated Press reported Monday that one in five American teen-agers doesn't know the answer to this elementary-school history question: From what country did America declare its independence?

The survey, commissioned by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, showed that 22 percent of those who responded did not know the answer was England. Fourteen percent thought it was France.

"When you look at these numbers, it means that more than 5 million U.S. teen-agers don't understand the true meaning of Independence Day," Colin Campbell, president of the foundation that runs Colonial Williamsburg, the restored 18th-century capital, told the AP.

AP reported nearly all those surveyed knew that Washington, D.C., is the U.S. capital and that George W. Bush is president. However:

One in 10 did not know George Washington was the first president.

17 percent did not know there were 13 original colonies.

15 percent did not know the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

Nearly one in four did not know who fought in the Civil War; 13 percent thought it was the United States and England.


It's easy to think of the nation's past as stuff for scholars and dusty history books. Our short attention spans and desire for everything to be now sometimes make it seem that anything that did not happen five minutes ago is irrelevant.

That instant line of thinking, however, disregards the truth of philosopher and writer George Santayana who wrote in "The Life of Reason": "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Our future -- as many are fond of calling the younger generation -- needs to know our past. How else can the old mistakes be avoided and their lessons learned? How can we build on the successes of yesterday if we don't know what they are? Without a firm grasp of the past, we waste valuable time reinventing the wheel -- and everything else.

As we mark Independence Day on Wednesday with parades, fishing, picnics, family and community traditions, it behooves us all to take a few moments to remember exactly what we are celebrating -- the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776.

That milestone in our history is indeed something to celebrate.

(By the way, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's nationwide telephone survey of 1,020 youngsters ages 12 to 17 was conducted May 31 to June 5 and has a margin of error plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

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