The greatest generation?

Respectable historians have long warned students against "presentism," defined by Word Spy as "the application of current ideals, morals, and standards to historical figures and events." But what about "present-tense-ism," as illustrated by a recent Gallup Poll and described in Diane Ravitch's latest op-ed? Pollsters asked Americans to name the greatest president ever: an astounding 25 percent of Democrats picked Bill Clinton, while a whopping 32 percent of Republicans selected Ronald Reagan. Ravitch writes that to suggest these men "were ‘greater' presidents than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt is bizarre." Bizarre, but perhaps unsurprising, considering Americans' feeble knowledge of U.S. history. While the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress showed steady gains in the subject (see here), more than half of all twelfth graders were still "below basic." The consequences of this knowledge vacuum are severe. "We can't have thoughtful public discussions of issues," Ravitch writes, "when the public is so woefully uninformed about the past."

"First, Get the Knowledge," by Diane Ravitch, New York Sun, May 25, 2007

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