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Read it and Weep

While strolling around various English cities with my two school-age children during a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I …

While strolling around various English cities with my two school-age children during a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I was struck by how much history can be learned by studying the dedications on statues and plaques in churches and cathedrals. In Gloucester Cathedral you can gaze at the tomb of King Edward II and read that he was murdered by traitors in 1327. Not far away, in a tiny graveyard outside Berkeley Castle (where King Edward II actually was murdered), you can read about the last English court jester, who “died during revelry” in the early 18th century. All across the English countryside, you learn of the exploits of famous men and women such as Jane Austen, Sir Isaac Newton, St. Thomas a Becket, and King John by studying the inscriptions on the tombs, mausoleums, and graves in which they are interred.

Almost immediately, I had a troubling thought. The American landscape also is graced with statues, tombs, and churches that commemorate the deeds of famous citizens. In Monticello, VA, you can stand in awe before Thomas Jefferson’s final resting place and read that the third president of the U.S. viewed his three greatest accomplishments as fathering four daughters, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Declaration of Independence. At Civil War battlefields all over the South, you can learn about the heroic deeds of the Blue and the Gray. And in Tarrytown, NY, stands a statue dedicated to the colonial militiamen who captured Major John Andre as he was on his way to his British superiors with Benedict Arnold’s letter agreeing to betray the vital fortress at West Point to the enemy.

What all of these historical monuments have in common is faithfulness to the facts: King Edward II really was murdered in 1327; Thomas Jefferson really wrote the Declaration of Independence; Major John Andre really was captured in Tarrytown. But think what historical monuments will look like in the future. As everyone knows, the average American high school student has no idea why the Civil War was fought; cannot explain what the Dred Scott decision involved; and hasn’t the faintest idea who Crazy Horse, Nathan Hale, or William Jennings Bryan was.

Contemporary textbooks are notorious for containing factual errors and unforgivable omissions, sometimes because of political correctness and sometimes because of sheer ignorance. As a result, teachers with a woeful knowledge of the past are educating our children. Thus, students are learning incorrect facts, dates, and figures that give them a skewed idea of the way the American experience has played out over the centuries.

The long-term results of this phenomenon are bound to be disastrous to our national well-being. Since many teachers know nothing about the past-or are deliberately suppressing unsavory facts about our national heritage-our children probably will grow up to be citizens with a ludicrous grasp of history. As a result, in years to come, ignorant city fathers with good intentions will pool their resources with poorly educated sculptors and architects. They are certain to erect hundreds of statues, mausoleums, churches, and war memorials emblazoned with factual errors that will impart to future generations an inaccurate version of contemporary events. The results will be edifices such as:

  • A 90-foot granite statue of Dan Quayle in downtown Indianapolis, reading: “Dan Quayle, vice president of the U.S. 1988-92, won Purple Heart at Dien Bien Phu, 1967. Known to his contemporaries as ‘The Lion of DePauw.'”
  • A 350-foot onyx statue of Jim Wright erected in a public garden in Fort Worth, TX, reading: “Jim Wright, speaker of the House. Known as `Honest Jim.'”
  • A life-sized marble sculpture of former Washington Mayor Marion Barry, carrying the message: “Marion Barry, public servant. ‘The Diogenes of D.C.'” The scary thing is that Americans’ grasp of history is so poor, we might even see scoundrels reformed in public memorials. How about these?
  • “Michael Milken, financier: ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.'”
  • “Geraldo Rivera, founder of modern television journalism ethics: ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning… ‘
  • “Lorena Bobbitt, feminist, role model, suffragette, amateur surgeon: `Surely, this was the unkindest cut.'”
  • “Lyle and Erik Menendez, champions of the rights of children: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The most terrifying possibility is that present-day dunces will rewrite history in an incorrect fashion, and that future generations of Americans will learn everything they know about the past by reading inscriptions written by mutton-heads who have plundered history and fused the wrong facts with the wrong quotations by the wrong people.
  • Bill Clinton, steadfast husband: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”
  • Hillary Clinton, commodities trader: “He who laughs last, laughs best.” ‘Jeffrey Dahmer, bon vivant: “I never met a man I didn’t like.”
  • Kurt Cobain, the Shostakovich of Seattle: “Don’t fire until you see the whites of your eyes.”

Let’s face it, folks: We have to do something about this history problem before things get out of control.

Teach your children well.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.