There are perils in hiding from unfashionable realities

Geography has not been taught as a subject in public schools, here or on the other side of the Atlantic, for decades. The same is true of history, geography’s companion discipline. The two subjects are now loosely lumped together under the heading “Social Studies.” If Social Studies were simply a harmonization and rationalization of two closely related subjects, that would be one thing—unnecessary, perhaps; excessive, probably; but essentially benevolent in its intent.

When one examines its fruits, however, one can see the results have been anything but laudable. Today a majority of American children have only the haziest picture of the geography of the country in which they live and an even sketchier idea of its history. As to world geography, forget about it.

This has serious implications for the future of democracy: Not least, an electorate which cannot locate Puerto Rico, still less San Jose and Ponce, on a map can scarcely be expected to pass an informed judgment on claims the federal government’s response to the recent hurricane was woefully inadequate.

Nor is an electorate so wholly ignorant of world geography, geology, and geopolitics equipped to assess the logistical, political, economic, and military implications for the U.S. in crises in such far away places as North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

In short, our abandonment of the serious study of geography in our public schools leaves America prey to demagogues, deceivers and fanatics of every stripe. And the same goes for the bowdlerization of our history.

Some 30 years have passed since my daughter asked: “Mommy, what did men do during the Revolution?” Her schoolbooks dealt extensively with how it affected women, Native Americans, and slaves. But the roles of the founding fathers and the fighting men were treated so casually as to virtually ignore them. Things have not improved in the interim.

The problem is that social studies as a subject was conceived neither to teach us history nor inform us about the world in which we live. Its primary purpose seems to be social engineering—to impart “proper attitudes” and foster “appropriate behavior.” In short, it is history and geography bent to the purpose of social engineers.

Why, for example, teach children to locate the continents or the world’s capitals when learning how far flung places are tends to undermine the goal of teaching them to think globally?

The same goes for history. Our self-anointed Solons, for instance, have expurgated religion from Western history—presumably on grounds that religion is divisive, or gets in the way of our sex lives, or some such nonsense.

A typically egregious example occurred a decade or so ago at an exhibition on William Shakespeare’s life and times at the National Portrait Gallery in London, England. There are few authentic portraits of the bard, so the curators who staged the exhibition assembled all manner of artifacts he would have encountered or employed during the course of his daily life and work.

In addition to art works, there were clothes, weapons, tools, household utensils, literature and manuscripts in the hand of contemporary playwrights. But three things that exerted an overwhelming influence on Shakespeare’s life and work were notable solely by their absence—the 1558 Book of Common Prayer, Miles Coverdale’s Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.

Yet Shakespeare was so intimate with the Prayer Book, he plundered it continually for felicitous expressions and figures of speech. Much the same is true of the two great translations of the Bible. In other words, the role of theology—the hot button issue of his age—were entirely ignored in this exploration of the psyche of a major public figure whose life was dominated by issues of religion.

I suppose this is only to be expected of people who applaud the notion of excising the role of the Church from the political, social, intellectual, and spiritual history of the Middle Ages?

However, while one might not like religion or the religiously minded any more than one likes leprosy, syphilis, and the Black Death, all three played a major role in shaping the foundations upon which our history is laid. And discussion of them should not be suppressed simply because they are distasteful.

Moreover, if we fail to understand the past, it is unlikely we shall understand the present, and this bodes evil for that which is to come. As George Santayana so presciently said: “Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” GPH✠

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