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Of Hamas and Historical Ignorance
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Of Hamas and Historical Ignorance

We’re seeing the consequences of deemphasizing knowledge and facts in K-12 education.

UCLA students march and on the UCLA campus on November 8, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

In the wake of Hamas’ brutal assault on Israel, campuses across the United States have been home to rallies and demonstrations that are nominally pro-Palestinian but effectively celebrations of the terrorist group. Students at George Washington projected slogans such as “Glory to the Martyrs” on a campus building, a Cornell student was arrested for threatening to rape and kill Jewish students, and numerous campuses have been home to antisemitic assaults and vandalism.

The reaction has highlighted the degree to which we’ve left a generation of youth vulnerable to ludicrous doctrines, social media manipulation, and genuinely bad actors. The shocking support among young adults for Hamas’ assault draws on historic ignorance and crude postmodern notions of justice and victimhood, in which torture and kidnapping were rebranded a justifiable response to “colonial privilege.”

The problem starts well before students arrive at college. The average high school student knows little about American history, and even less about the world. A 2018 survey found that 41 percent of adult Americans couldn’t identify Auschwitz as a Nazi concentration camp. Among millennials specifically, two-thirds couldn’t identify Auschwitz and 22 percent had never heard of the Holocaust. So much for “Never forget.” 

Such findings are of a piece with the abysmal performance of younger students in history and geography on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In the most recent assessment, of a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders, just 13 percent of students were judged “proficient” in U.S. history and just 22 percent in civics. These results continue a decade-long decline.

As Natalie Wexler, author of The Knowledge Gap, has aptly put it, “You can’t think critically about what you don’t know.” This problem isn’t new. But it’s taken on added urgency in a time of intense polarization, declining academic achievement, ubiquitous social media, and rapidly advancing deepfake technology. 

In 1978, alarmed by test results from poor, minority students at a Richmond community college who were ignorant of foundational historic figures and events, scholar E.D. Hirsch began researching the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension. His 1987 book Cultural Literacy became a surprise bestseller and sparked a push for a more rigorous curriculum. 

But teacher training and schools of education largely rejected Hirsch and clung fast to a progressive consensus that children should learn self-confidence and “skills,” not dates and names. Those engaged in preparing a new generation of teachers rejected Hirsch’s belief in the importance of knowledge as “elitist, Eurocentric and focused too heavily on rote memorization,” as a Virginia magazine profile of the famed UVA professor described. Indeed, a decade later, one of us taught alongside the genial, soft-spoken Hirsch, only to see fellow UVA education school faculty quietly steer their students away from this dangerous figure.

The internet supposedly made learning all those “mere facts” unnecessary, anyway. As scholar Mark Bauerlein recounted in his 2009 book The Dumbest Generation, education professors and advocates enamored of “21st century skills” insisted that we needed to move “beyond facts, skills, and right answers” and that students could always just look up all that other stuff.

The skills-over-facts trend paralleled a push to jettison traditional historical narratives and moral certainties in favor of critical theories. Beginning in the 1980s, Howard Zinn’s enormously influential (if oft-inaccurate) People’s History of the United States recast America’s story as one of unbroken villainy and oppression. It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1980 and was added to high school curricula across the land.  

The unapologetic aim of Zinn’s work—and that of its latter-day, award-winning imitator the 1619 Project—was not to explore our simultaneously wonderful and woeful history but to impress on young people that America and its allies are oppressive colonial powers (that the U.S. is, according to the architect of the 1619 Project, a “slavocracy”).

As a teacher said to one of us recently regarding developments in Israel and Gaza: “Many kids have little to no understanding of the historical context. I feel overwhelmed trying to explain things to them in a side comment here or there.” This teacher lives 10 miles from the state capital, in a town where the average household earns $130,000. This community, filled with educated parents and well-regarded schools, sends the vast majority of its high school graduates on to four-year colleges.

This teacher knows that geography, history, religion, economics, and philosophy are essential to understanding the context of these attacks. But these are subjects that too few schools teach coherently or consistently. Last year K-12 teachers told RAND that it’s more important for civics education to promote environmental activism than “knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions.” 

Teachers who hold these beliefs are unlikely to give students the knowledge or grounding they need to make sense of the world around them. Indeed, the same teachers told RAND their top two priorities for civics education are “promoting critical and independent thinking” and “developing skills in conflict resolution.” What’s striking is that these responses are strikingly content-free. 

In 2020, RAND surveyed high school civics teachers about what they thought graduates needed to know. Just 43 percent thought it essential that they know about periods such as “the Civil War and the Cold War.” Less than two-thirds thought it essential for graduates to know the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Critical thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s no way for anyone to form meaningful independent judgments on what’s unfolding in Israel and Gaza if they haven’t learned much about history, geography, economics, or political systems. 

This is pretty instructive when it comes to understanding, for instance, how Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” has recently gone viral on TikTok. It’s not obvious that Gen Z is eagerly searching for wisdom from mass murderers. But as they spend hours casting about social media, youth who know little about the events or aftermath of 9/11 are encountering a long-dead figure who promises to provide the history and moral clarity they’re not getting elsewhere. We’re sending ill-equipped, confused youth out into the wilds of social media, and we’re reaping the unsurprising result.

As academic rigor and traditional norms have retreated, the space has increasingly been filled by moral relativism and contempt for Western civilization. The result is progressive students who hail Hamas as an ally—an odd way to regard theocratic ideologues who are cavalier about rape, murdering homosexuals, and treating women as chattel.

Writing from a Jerusalem university emptied of students by the present conflict, economist Russ Roberts recently observed, “Open societies are going to have to come to terms with 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.”

The challenges here are profound. They can seem overwhelming. But there are places to start. Instead of calling on their students to “listen with care and humility,” university presidents should insist that their education schools develop curricula that teach history, geography, and ethics consistently and coherently. They should promote these aggressively and train teachers to use them. Lawmakers and school boards should demand that schools take far more seriously the substance of history and civics, rather than settling for lip service about cultivating content-free skills. Our success at renewing our commitment to truths we once held to be “self-evident” will have much to say about the future of the American experiment.

Mathew Levey is the founder of Brooklyn’s International Charter School.