Historical Ignorance

In commenting on recent violent protests, Daniel Greenfield says:

But nobody is that historically ignorant that they don’t know what a red flag with a hammer and sickle or a swastika stands for.

Theodore Dalrymple, author of Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, disagrees! Some quotes

A considerable number of the auto-tattooed inject themselves with swastikas. At first I thought this was profoundly nasty, a reflection of their political beliefs, but in my alarm I had not taken into consideration the fathomless historical ignorance of those who do such things to themselves. People who believe (as one of my recent patients did) that the Second World War started in 1918 and ended in 1960 – a better approximation to the true dates than some I have heard – are unlikely to know what exactly the Nazis and their emblem stood for, beyond the everyday brutality with which they are familiar, and which they admire and aspire to.


I cannot recall meeting a 16-year-old white from the council estates that are near my hospital who could multiply nine by seven (I do not exaggerate). Even three by seven often defeats them. One boy of 17 told me, ‘We didn’t get that far.’ This after 12 years of compulsory education (or should I say, attendance at school). As to knowledge in other spheres, it is fully up to the standards set in mathematics. Most of the young whites whom I meet literally cannot name a single writer and certainly cannot recite a line of poetry. Not a single one of my young patients has known the dates of the Second World War, let alone of the First; some have never heard of these wars, though recently one young patient who had heard of the Second World War thought it took place in the 18th century. In the prevailing circumstances of total ignorance, I was impressed that he had heard of the 18th century. The name Stalin means nothing to these young people and does not even evoke the faint ringing of a bell, as the name Shakespeare (sometimes) does. To them, 1066 is more likely to mean a price than a date.


My patient was intelligent but badly-educated, as only products of the British educational system can be after eleven years of compulsory school attendance. She thought the Second World War took place in the 1970s and could give me not a single correct historical date.


A few days earlier I had met a publisher for lunch, and the subject of the general level of culture and education in England came up. The publisher is a cultivated man, widely read and deeply attached to literature, but I had difficulty in convincing him that there were grounds for concern. That illiteracy and innumeracy were widespread did not worry him in the least, because – he claimed – they had always been just as widespread. (The fact that we now spent four times as much per head on education as we did 50 years ago and were therefore entitled to expect rising rates of literacy and numeracy at the very least did not in the slightest knock him off his perch.) He simply did not believe me when I told him that nine of ten young people between the ages of 16 and 20 whom I met in my practice could not read with facility and were incapable of multiplying six by nine, or that out of several hundreds of them I had asked when the Second World War took place, only three knew the answer.

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