Randolph G. Russell, historian and author of American History in No Time, shared with Glennville Rotarians on August 17, 2022, a message about the serious lack of civic knowledge in the country.
“The Founders believed that this nation would be preserved in liberty only if we as citizens understood its history, embraced its founding principles, and had an appreciation for the sacrifices made to secure the freedoms it affords,” he said.
He gave some humorous examples of people responding to elementary questions about our country, such as the person who thought “taking the Fifth” meant taking Friday off at work.
And on Columbus Day, people were asked if they could name the three ships that sailed on the explorer’s first voyage. The responses included “the Ninja,” “the Piña Colada,” and “the Santa Margarita.”
Some years ago, on the Fourth of July, Russell asked a group of high school students what exactly we were celebrating. Not one of them knew that on that date in 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.
But evidence of the problem comes not just from anecdotes. Studies and surveys show that “the lack of knowledge is pervasive across all age groups and all academic levels,” said Russell.
He cited the results of a basic American history test given to college students at 50 institutions around the country, including Harvard and Yale. Seniors at those colleges scored so poorly that the average grade was an F.
“A survey conducted among the general public found that less than one percent of adults can name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment,” he said.
Russell gave four reasons why we need to fix this problem, as a nation and as individuals. “First, it is impossible to understand what it really means to be an American without knowing the basics of our nation’s history, and those things should be so ingrained that they become a part of who we are individually and collectively.” he added.
“Second, the problem is not just a matter of complacency. There are people who try to fill the void of ignorance with a distorted picture of this country and its Founding,” he said.
Russell recounted a conversation with a prominent college history professor who told him “the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are irrelevant today.”
“The third reason stems from the fact that as a republic, we govern ourselves through elected representatives. In federal elections every two years, we have the power to replace the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate if we choose to do so,” he said. “That is 88 percent of the Congress, the most representative body. But that tremendous responsibility is lost on most people. According to a national survey, two-thirds of college graduates don’t even know that congressional terms are two years in the House and six years in the Senate.”
He went on to say that history can and should inform our decisions when we head to the polls. “Knowing where we came from helps us evaluate the current direction of the country and measure how well our elected and appointed officials are doing.”
The fourth reason to become well-informed, Russell said, was that “the history of America is a fascinating story, and connecting with the past can make your life much richer and more meaningful.”
He quoted the recently deceased historian, David McCullough, who said, “The lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Indifference to history is a form of ingratitude.”
Russell’s solution to the problem is American History In No Time. The concise overview can be read in just a few hours and contains the basics everyone should know from before Columbus to the Founding of the United States and all the way up to the present. The book has been used at colleges, but it is easy for anyone to understand, including children and people who haven’t liked history before. Included in the narrative are fascinating tidbits not usually found in overviews, such as how long it took the stock market to recover its value lost in the Great Depression (25 years) and how the Allied success on D-Day hinged on a weather forecast (German weather forecasters missed what Allied forecasters saw, a slight break in the weather that made an invasion possible).
The 121-page paperback can be purchased on Amazon.com or on the author’s website, AmericanHistoryInNoTime.com.
In addition to his expertise in American history, Russell worked for years in financial management and was a professional musician when he was younger. He ended his presentation by performing a stylized rendition of “America the Beautiful” on the saxophone.