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Because Americans Know Little History, Washington DC's Building Visitor Centers. Really.

Everyone laughed in 2001 when, at a Washington correspondents’ dinner, President Bush asked the question:  “Is our children learning?’ 

But, bumbling language aside, it’s a good question. In science and technology, there’s no uncertainty that today’s kids are indeed keeping up. They can learn to use virtually any electronic device from a just released laptop, to an iPhone or PC-mounted camcorder in a matter of minutes.

For history, however, the news is not so good. In fact it’s bad. Very bad. I’m not basing this judgment on any detailed academic study or in-depth survey, but merely on what I see and hear almost every day as a resident of Washington DC.

As the national’s capital, the District of Columbia is the beating heart of American history. This city on the Potomac is literally America’s metaphysical attic, both the place where we physically store our most important documents, and the sun-dappled setting we’ve chosen to honor, in bronze and granite and marble, the ideals of the great and the good in American history.

And it’s for that reason, that each year hundreds of thousands of high school kids come here, every spring and every autumn, from Boston and Chicago and Denver, and San Francisco.

It is a statistical fact that we Americans remain in school longer than any other society in history, entering kindergarten at five and often only get catapulted out of academia a full quarter of a century later. Despite that impressive educational marker, whenever I hear young people open their months when visiting Washington, more often than not, they come across sounding like ignoramuses.

Recently, while walking near the wonderfully sprawling open-air monument to President Franklin Roosevelt, I happened to overhear two high school boys who had just been poured out of a bus. They were literally asking themselves why they were visiting this place.

One said to the other:  “So, who’s this 'FDR guy?”  It was painfully obvious that these two real life versions of Dumb & Dumber had never been taught about the Great Depression, and how Roosevelt had helped created a whole raft of innovative social programs to pull this county back to prosperity. Considering that a recent report revealed that many of today’s high school kids think that America fought on the side of Germany during the Second World War, there’s a good chance that these same two bird brains would also have no knowledge about FDR’s central role in defeating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly six out of 10 high school seniors knew so little about their own nation’s history that many are basically historically illiterate.  And things have only gotten worse since then.

Today’s students routinely fail to knowin which century the Civil War was fought, or even why it was fought. Ask a gaggle of high school seniors to explain, even briefly, exactly who any of the following were: Woodrow Wilson, Sam Houston, Emma Lazarua, Jack London, Thomas Paine, Adlai Stevenson, James Baldwin, Ike Eisenhower, John Glenn or Daniel Webster -- and the odds are good that none will know any of them.

Official Washington is now reacting to this distressing situation. No, not by pouring more money into American history education, but by throwing up steel and stone remedial learning centers in the guise of “visitor centers.”

The first one, costing $110 million, opened a year ago at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s charming Potomac River estate just south of the capital.

Decades ago, when high school kids visited Mount Vernon, they had been well briefed by their  teachers about the Great Man, his life story, and how his example of selfless service and his strong personal support of democratic rule set a sterling example for all other presidents to follow.

Today’s visitors seem about as well informed about this American icon as Borat is about America in general.  “Some people,” Emily Dibella, a PR officer at Mount Vernon, told the Washington Post, “think Washington fought in the Civil War.”

Another visitors center will be built at the Vietnam War Memorial. The Memorial itself was designed 25 years ago by the then 21 year old Yale University student Maya Lin. Once controversial, today it is the single most visited destination in Washington, an uncomplicated but stunningly vivid testament to the aching toll of that war, which cost 58,000 American lives.  The trouble is, today, too few people know much about the war itself, hence the 25,000 square foot visitors center which will include a movie theater to explain to visitors what they apparently were never properly taught in schools. The cost:  $100 million, more than ten times the original cost of the memorial itself.

Early this week, I again happened to be strolling on the National Mall, this time crossing between the great Greek barn that is the Lincoln Memorial, and the glinting waters of the Reflecting Pool.

Just as I arrived, a mammoth tour bus pulled up, and a tidal flow of teenagers poured out onto the Mall. As I followed this stream towards the steps of the Reflecting Pool, one of the older boys started to stammer something, some remembered fact perhaps, some ingot of information jarred from a history class? Maybe it was about George Washington? Or perhaps it was to do with Mr. Lincoln, and his crucial role in tying to heal a nation which had been torn tragically apart by the Civil War?  Possibly it was a reference to Martin Luther King’s historic and stirring “I have a dream speech” given on this very spot in 1963?  Alas, it was none of the above.

Finally, with obviously immense effort, the boy managed to pull his thoughts together and utter what contemplation this extraordinary American vista had brought to his agitated adolescence brain.

“Look everybody,” he shouted with glee, “This is where they made that Forrest Gump movie!”

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