Saturday, I went grocery shopping at the local Giant Eagle. While I stood contemplating the display of organic, antibiotic-free meats, one of the men who work in the butcher area stepped over. He looked to be in his early twenties, and he had a slightly panicked look in his eyes.
"Excuse me!" he said, keeping his voice low. "Do you know, when was the American Revolution?"
Several thoughts flipped through my mind:
1. Why is he asking this?
2. How typical, that kids today don’t know basic facts of our country’s history.
3. I myself don’t really know when the American Revolution happened.
I noticed then that he was looking over his shoulder at some of the older butchers, so I figured there was some intergenerational debate going on. I wanted to help — he looked so desperate.
The only date that came to mind was 1776, and that’s the date I told him. He thanked me and walked away.
I continued to stand there, debating which of the packages of hormone-free beef would be best for stew. I could barely hear the kid say "1776" to the older guys.
"Well," one of them said, with scorn in his voice, "that’s when the Declaration of Independence was signed. But the war…." And then I couldn’t hear any more, either because they turned away or because I was embarrassed to have given the kid bad information.
When I got home, I checked Wikipedia to discover that the American War of Independence started in 1775. That’s pretty damn close to 1776, don’t you think? Still, I hadn’t known the correct answer, and I’m bummed.
Now, history has never been my strong suit. Neither am I good at geography. Anything that requires memorization does not come naturally to me. Math, logic, anything that calls for analytic thought: I can nail that, bring it on. So I could excuse my failure to be a good life line at the grocery store by saying that one must surely be allowed to have a special focus, and this may mean letting other areas slide a bit.
But that excuse doesn’t play well for me. I feel there are some basic facts of history and the world that everyone should know, such as when one’s country was formed and where one is in the world.
I’m not the only who feels like this. Susan Jacoby has written an entire book, “The Age of American Unreason,” about Americans’ lack of knowledge.
She takes the problem farther though. "Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters."
But I don’t agree with her point. Witness my exchange at the butcher counter: That kid clearly thought it mattered that he at least appear to know a particular, important date in U.S. history. He may have brushed it off again later, but for at least a short time he cared enough to ask a random stranger — and he seemed sure that I would know the answer.
So maybe there’s hope for American youth after all.