What Young People Dont Know
April 29, 2003
my age youre expected to complain about the younger
generation, and at times Im tempted to lament their ignorance of
history. But the moment I do, Im checked by a question: Whose fault
is that? Who educated them? The answer, of course, is my generation. So I
wind up pitying todays youth.
Every generation has a lot of
catching up to do. The history their parents learned is obsolete, because
history now includes their parents experience on top of all that
happened before. I remember the Eisenhower years, the rise of Fidel
Castro, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam war.
Todays kids have to read about all that. It can never be as real to
them as it is to me.
In the same way, I had to read up
on things my parents remembered vividly: the Depression, Franklin D.
Roosevelt, World War II. These were not things in the past; they were still
present. Even in the prosperous Fifties and later, most adults feared a
return of the Depression. The power of this memory shaped the politics of
the 1950s to a degree you wouldnt suspect from reading about the
events of the time. The Republicans bore the heavy burden of blame for the
Depression; the Democrats were the party of the little man.
If you dont understand that, you cant understand the time as
it felt to those who lived it.
The present is never just the
present. It is the present plus all its memories. But its dominant
memories are also distorted by selection. We tend to remember highlights,
headlines, and slogans, but not the rich contexts of events. Many of the
events we remember are isolated and given an exaggerated prominence.
Baseball fans remember what Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams did in 1941,
but its harder to remember which teams won the pennants and the
World Series, things that seemed more important at the time.
historic memories are always abridgments of the past. Today Franklin
Roosevelt is remembered for leading us through the
Depression and World War II. The details are largely forgotten; the longest
presidency in American history is reduced to a couple of slogans and a few
newsreel images. (Weve even forgotten that people used to go to
the movies to see the news!)
In a sense, every generation is
disinherited, cut off by time itself from the things it needs to know. What
was undecided and complex then seems simple and inevitable now; what
seemed radical then seems normal now. And most people hardly realized
that vast changes were taking place. Is it any wonder that their
grandchildren and great-grandchildren dont know?
Facing the Depression, Roosevelt
took a series of steps that added up to a profound shift in the American
system of government and the Depression only got worse.
Promising to keep America out of World War II, he was secretly taking
measures to get America into that war, long before Pearl Harbor. But he
was a power politician and propagandist of great genius, and he got away
with everything. His lasting legacy is the destruction of limited,
Only once did his designs become
so naked and shocking that they were defeated. That was when he tried to
pack the U.S. Supreme Court, making it subordinate to him
and thus tearing down the checks and balances essential to constitutional
government. Even his followers turned against him for once; yet he soon
wound up getting his way with the Court when several justices retired,
died, or changed their minds about constitutionality.
A few observers discerned what
Roosevelt was up to and tried to warn the country. They were largely
ignored; today their books are hard to find. (One of the shrewdest of them,
Garet Garrett, spent his last years literally living in a cave.) But he is now
generally considered a great president for doing exactly what his
critics accused him of doing. And his perversions of presidential power
are now used as precedents for others, with the approval of
If so few of his contemporaries,
following events as they occurred from day to day, managed to penetrate
Roosevelts grand deceptions, how are todays young people
supposed to understand? Not only have they been given the wrong answers;
they dont realize there were ever questions. They were
disinherited before they were born.