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col Students must learn heritage

On a visit to Paris in the 1980s, I engaged a young Frenchman in a discussion of politics.

He was a student at the University of Paris and part-time waiter. He seemed contemptuous of Americans and said: "You Americans know nothing about my country, but I know all about you and your cowboy president, Mr. Reagan."

I assured him he was mistaken, but he was not persuaded. So, I wrote on several napkins key events in French history since the French Revolution in 1789. When I gave them to him, he looked incredulous, and said, "You know this about my country?" I couldn't resist and told him, "Every American kid knows that."

The fact is, every American kid does not know that. When I taught at John Marshall High School in the early 1960s, students were required to take a year of world history. In 1966, I moved to Rochester Junior College, where I taught European history for the next 30 years. Early on, it was my impression that students who came to the college had a solid grounding in Western traditions. The textbook I used, Palmer and Colton's "A History of the Modern World," was academically challenging and widely accepted throughout the country.

As the years passed, students began to complain the text was too difficult. In discussing this with the book salesman, he told me he was hearing the same thing from other teachers around the Midwest and elsewhere. Students were coming to college less prepared in the history of other cultures. We were moving into the age of technology, and it appeared the study of history was losing ground to those courses that taught "skills" that prepared students for immediate entry into the work force. With some frequency I heard, "I would like to take a course in history, but it ain't gonna get me no job." That comment revealed more than one problem.

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A CBS poll released during the recent Labor Day weekend revealed that two-thirds of voters, including two-thirds of Democrats, could not name a single Democratic candidate running for the presidency in 2004.

What does that suggest? There are several possibilities. Perhaps our students were not being taught to recognize the importance of their political heritage, or learn about those who aspire to represent us. Or, is it too early in the game to take real notice of who is running for office? Perhaps the candidates are uninspiring. Or, are people just tired of political spin-doctors who seek to manipulate them?

If we don't know about candidates and issues that directly affect us locally or nationally, it may be even more difficult to comprehend the quagmire we are in abroad. I cannot think of a time since our conflict in Vietnam when understanding other peoples and cultures has been more important. Certainly there are enormous domestic problems that should not be minimized, but it is becoming clear that our foreign policy is in complete disarray.

Seemingly we are being led by "politicians" who place little value on history or traditions and are guided instead by political expediency. Even a cursory knowledge of the region would have revealed that when we invaded Iraq -- contrary to Vice President Cheney's assertions that we would be treated as liberators -- we were about to unleash uncontrollable forces.

I may appear to be digressing from my initial point about education, but there is a connection. Since the end of the communist threat, we have been exercising what one American historian described as a "schizophrenic" foreign policy. We are unilateralist one day and internationalist the next. We denigrate the United Nations one day only to ask its help the next. We say we are not into nation building and then proceed to do precisely that. In an absence of consistency, we operate on the basis of expediency.

As citizens of the United States we need to re-examine, re-evaluate and re-affirm our heritage. And we must translate what we say we believe into social action. That process should not originate from a politically driven White House. It must originate from a knowledgeable citizenry who will elect candidates who not only have integrity and the best interests of their constituents at heart, but also a world view.

Certainly people need skills if we are to survive in a technological world, but we should not substitute skills for historical perspective. The underpinnings of a society are its values and traditions. Perhaps not knowing the names of candidates may seem insignificant at this juncture. However, if we fail to remember the achievements of our forefathers, we will pay a terrible price. Ignorance is not bliss, and administering a nation on the vagaries of the moment will not serve us well. While adapting to the present, we must learn from the past.

James M. Russell, retired chair of the Social Science Division at Rochester Community and Technical College

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