When Sarah Palin flunked third grade social studies last week, her allies were quick to defend her. What difference did it make, really? Does knowing whom Paul Revere actually warned make a possible candidate any more or less savant on fiscal policy? Should mistakenly declaring that the American Revolution began in New Hampshire doom one's chances for nomination?
Yes, oh, yes. And here I speak not for the Tea Partiers, with their broomstick muskets at the ready, but for everybody else. The American president is the inheritor of an historical memory that is the United States. It matters to get it right, because ignorance of the fundamentals is symptomatic of something much worse: indifference.
How can someone speak of oneself as a patriot, even an American, without knowing who we are and how we became it? These televised flubs are worrying enough in themselves, but what is even more disturbing is the response. Getting it right means that the story matters to them; caring about getting it right means it matters to us. If we don't hold our legislators (and Sarah Palin) accountable for knowing the history it is we who are at fault, and we will assuredly get the leadership we deserve.
I don't wish to be unfair, but until well into the twentieth century a preponderance of our presidents read Latin, quoted Milton and Shakespeare, and drew from an immense mental repository of human history in making crucial decisions of state. The founding fathers, to a man, regarded themselves as latter-day Roman Republicans, and often signed their letters to one another as Cato, Publius, Cicero, etc. They understood that the revolution they undertook was not singular, but part of an ongoing struggle for human liberty that predated their efforts and would continue long after.
The memoirs of every departing president reveal that, at moments of great crisis, history is the greatest counselor. Presidents look to the actions of their predecessors for guidance and warning. Beyond that, with a wider field to draw from, they also look to events seemingly remote, yet crucial: the English Civil War, Alexander's campaigns in Persia, the legal reforms of Justinian. A greater knowledge of history means a broader field of precedents, and thus better-informed decisions. This does not guarantee success, as for every precedent there is usually one to counter it. But to argue that ignorance is preferable -- or even possible -- is to hand the controls of the jet to a five-year-old.
When choosing our next presidential candidates, they need to get it right, and so do we. Because after that, the rest is history.
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