Victor Davis Hanson: Cooke was right; we don't know much about geography

August 19, 2013 

In Sam Cooke's classic 1959 hit "Wonderful World," the lyrics downplayed formal learning with lines like, "Don't know much about history ... Don't know much about geography."

Over a half-century after Cooke wrote that lighthearted song, such ignorance is now all too real. Even our best and brightest — our elites, especially — are not too familiar with history or geography.

Without awareness of natural and human geography, we are reduced to a sort of self-contained void without accurate awareness of the space around us. An ignorance of history leaves us unaware of both what came before us and what is likely to follow.

In the case of geography, Harvard Law School graduate Barack Obama recently lectured that, "If we don't deepen our ports all along the Gulf — places like Charleston, South Carolina; or Savannah, Georgia; or Jacksonville, Florida ..." The problem is that all the examples he cited are cities on the East Coast, not the Gulf of Mexico. If Obama does not know where these ports are, how can he deepen them?

In reference to the Falkland Islands, Obama called them the Maldives — islands southwest of India — apparently in a botched effort to use the Argentine-preferred Malvinas. When in the state of Hawaii, Obama announced that he was in "Asia."

The president's geographical illiteracy is a symptom of the nation's growing ignorance of once-essential subjects like geography and history. The former is often not taught anymore as a required subject in our schools and colleges. The latter has often been redefined as race, class and gender oppression to score melodramatic points in the present rather than to learn from the tragedy of the past.

Recently, Obama claimed that 20th century communist strongman Ho Chi Minh "was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson." That pop assertion is improbable, given that Ho systematically liquidated his opponents, slaughtered thousands in land-redistribution schemes, and brooked no dissent.

Even more ahistorical was Vice President Joe Biden's suggestion that George W. Bush should have gone on television in 2008 to address the nation as President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done in 1929 — a time when there was neither a President Roosevelt nor televisions available for purchase.

Our geographically and historically challenged leaders are emblematic of disturbing trends in American education that include a similar erosion in grammar, English composition and basic math skills.

In the zero-sum game of the education curriculum, each newly added therapeutic discipline eliminated an old classical one. The result is that if Americans emote more and have more politically correct thoughts, they are less able to advance their beliefs through fact-based knowledge.

Despite supposedly tough new standards and vast investments, about 56 percent of students in recent California public school tests did not perform up to their grade levels in English. Only about half met their grade levels in math.

A degree from our most prestigious American university is no guarantee that such a graduate will know the number of states or the location of Savannah. If we wonder why the Ivy League-trained Obama seems confused about where cities, countries and continents are, we might remember that all but one Ivy League university eliminated their geography departments years ago.

As a rule now, when our leaders allude to a place or an event in the past, just assume their references are dead wrong.

Email: author@victorhanson.com.

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