History Matters

If anyone needs evidence that what is taught in our schools impacts public behavior, look no further than the response to the results of the November 8 election. In the days after the election, when it became apparent more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, columnists, editorial writers, and social media posters trumpeted calls for the elimination of the Electoral College.

Learning that doing so would take a constitutional amendment and thus fail to impact the 2016 election, those who felt cheated turned to other panaceas, attempting to sway electors to betray their mandates and recount filings. That none of those has a chance of succeeding seems irrelevant.

Their efforts now focus on denying Trump’s victory legitimacy and undermining his ability to fulfill his campaign promises. The strength of the protest movement depends, however, on the lack of knowledge of its followers of the history of our country and how our political system works.

Every four years millions are shocked to learn that the person who wins the most votes is not automatically elected president. Every four years millions are dismayed to discover that America is not a direct democracy where the majority rules, but a representative republic. This can only be attributed to the failure of our educational system to teach those essentials or to have done so in a manner that sticks.

I can hear the protesters’ objections to my claim. What happened in the past doesn’t matter, they might say. We need a system for the present, they add, and of course, some will argue, as the man some Democrats have put forward to chair their organization once did, that the Constitution can be dismissed as a document of a rich, white, male elite, providing further evidence of the failure of our educational system.

If the past is irrelevant, there’s no need to teach about slavery or Jim Crow or women’s struggles for equality since those are all part of our past. Right? Either history is relevant or it is not, and I can’t imagine too many people coming down on the side of ignoring it altogether.

That said, what corrective can be offered in terms of our political system? Let’s start with a re-writing of the textbooks to go back to the core story––from the settling of the continent to the Revolution to the writing of the Constitution and the first ten amendments.

What a study of those events would disclose is that our system represents a compromise between competing interests. Let’s take the matter of slavery. Had those among the founders who objected to slavery been unwilling to compromise with the Southern states, there would have been no United States of America. Had the compromise failed, England would have found little resistance to re-conquering the continent since the colonies barely won the war and faced a future with depleted resources.

Further, had those in favor of a strong, centralized national government lessening the power of the states held out, the Constitution would not have passed, and once again the colonies would have been subject to conquest. The Electoral College is testimony to the compromise that established a central government for the protection of the country, but allowed states to retain a strong voice.

The notion that our system of government is the product of a compromise is something today’s protesters fail to appreciate. That it is the best political system mankind has yet created is something they don’t understand given how poorly history has been taught in our public schools and colleges, and by the willingness of some to ignore both the rationale for our present system and how well it has worked for 240 years.