As president of Purdue University, former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels teaches a course on the origins of the First World War — a calamity so monstrously byzantine it makes the articulated causes of the Second World War seem like a McGuffey's Reader. Daniels is also a Washington Post contributor, and his latest column draws on his introductory teaching in that class, during which, he tells us, he warns his students about the historiographical scourge of what's known as "presentism" — in which, as Daniels defines it, "the values, mores and conventions of the present day are used to judge, almost always harshly and sanctimoniously, our predecessors."
It's been a few years since I was a student of history, that is, enrolled as a student of history. But when I was, the presentist blight seemed to be everywhere in the literature. Daniels calls it a "smug folly," which is apt, for its principal misconception is that we can judge the past with present eyes. As he puts it, this particular ism is the assumption that "we in the present day are superior intellectually and morally and that the past has nothing to teach us."
I would differ with Daniels on that last part. It seems to me that presentism insists that history possesses a superabundance of instruction, nearly all of it negative — historical figures (almost always, dead white guys) should have known this and they should have known that, but they didn't because they refused to. They refused to embrace the (mostly) moral superiority of today's intellectually informed. The misconception is deliberate in its elementary error (thus it is less a misconception than an academic malfeasance), for its truest aim is to demonstrate the writer's moral superiority. Why couldn't James Madison or Patrick Henry see what assistant professors ("injustice collectors," as the brilliant historiographer Peter Novick once called them) could see so vividly?
At any rate, Daniels goes on to observe that "Presentism’s principal tributaries are a lack of knowledge and a deficient capacity for empathy," the latter of which, perhaps, stems from the former. "The fundamental civic concepts of which majorities of both young and old are ignorant is … appalling," writes Daniels, and "The list of basic facts today’s Americans don’t know is too embarrassing and discouraging to repeat."
But repeat we shall, although our mortification, in this post, shall extend less to everyday Americans than to those they elect to office, who really should know better, given that they're the paid products of America's political history. In preparation for writing this piece I stumbled on a 2010 essay written by an English composition instructor who rattled off a few findings on historical knowledge among both us and our keepers. "In each of the following areas," she wrote, "officeholders do more poorly than non-officeholders:"
*Seventy-nine percent of those who have been elected to government office do not know the Bill of Rights expressly prohibits establishing an official religion for the U.S.
*Thirty percent do not know that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are the unalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence.
*Twenty-seven percent cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
*Forty-three percent do not know what the Electoral College does. One in five thinks it either "trains those aspiring for higher political office" or "was established to supervise the first televised presidential debates."
*Fifty-four percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. Thirty-nine percent think that power belongs to the president, and 10% think it belongs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Slightly less than half (49 percent) of officeholders could name all three branches of government.
Again, those figures are from 2010. I'd wager the officeholder findings became even more depressingly deficient afterward — post-tea-party wave; that mass invasion by Roy Moorelike barbarians who believed knowing the Ten Commandments superseded all silly academic knowledge.
The thundering irony of all this, it seems to me, is that the least historically knowledgeable among us — officeholders and non-officeholders alike — are probably the least "presentist" in their knowledge, since they haven't really given history much thought. Furthermore, it's the least historically knowledgeable who tend to see themselves as superior in morality — i.e., the socially conservative. And yet, implies Daniels, probably correctly, it's the academics on the self-righteous left who tend to "indulge in the arrogance of presentism" and therefore "can be assured that, a century from now, we will be looked on by our descendants … as hopelessly ignorant and morally backward."
So, today's least knowledgeable will be tomorrow's least surprised by yesterday's grossest social primitivism: that 20th- and 21st-century America failed to provide, for instance, basic healthcare to all its citizens, or tuition-free higher education — just as far as her intellect and drive could take her — or any of the other accepted essentials of a modern society. Now that's a mind-bender.