I have taught about the economic history of the United States and Europe over the last seven decades, beginning in the 1960s and extending into the 2020s. I believe all educated Americans should have a decent understanding of American economic exceptionalism, how over the course of four centuries the area known as the United States went from being lightly populated and impoverished to being the richest and otherwise most exceptional place on Earth.
Yet the teaching of our past has declined in magnitude over time; mandatory collegiate instruction in history has largely ended. But it is worse: we are now lying about our past, telling stories that simply are not true. And the universities are at the forefront of this trend.
A brilliant entrepreneur and intellectual, Vivek Ramaswamy, put it well in his newest book, Nation of Victims:
Were a nation thats losing its memory, rewriting and sanitizing its own history to fit preapproved victimhood narratives. We suffer from our own version of Alzheimers. As we lose our memory, we lose our national identity.
The story of our past, accurately portrayed, provides the glue that brings together Americans from different areas, backgrounds, educational attainment, races, genders, etc. It gives strangers who are thrust together a common identity, placing them all together in one big tribe, the inhabitants of the United States of America.
For that reason, schools at all levels, and especially secondary and higher education institutions, once required all students to have some acquaintance with the American story. But no longer. Few colleges require instruction, for example, in American history, or even that of other parts of the world (I consider my year-long course in Western Civilization as a college freshman to be one of the most important and valuable courses I ever took). The famous George Santayana quote comes to mind: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
But it is far worse than that. We are now pushing a narrative of our past that is plainly false, aided and abetted by the truly execrable revisionist history known as the New York Times 1619 Project, led by journalist and pseudo-historian Nikole Hannah-Jones. According to this account, Americas most important distinguishing characteristic arose out of the arrival of slaves in 1619, and the American Revolution of more than one and one-half centuries later was fought to preserve the peculiar institution of slavery. In 55 years of reading and teaching about our colonial past, I never heard such a position espoused until the 1619 Project came along to reinvent our heritage.
Now we are, as Ramaswamy says, a nation of victims, ranging from 17th and 18th-century slaves to the oppressed minorities of today. We should be ashamed, not proud, of our heritage. We should atone for our sins rather than extol the virtues of an extraordinary past. As for the colleges? They often promote this false narrative, telling us that evil people, predominantly white males, have victimized and subjugated relatively innocent individuals of different races and genders.
Empirical evidence, of course, seems irrelevant. Why have literally tens of millions of persons from all over the planet descended upon America? Why is one of the biggest domestic issues today the annual flow of literally millions of illegal migrants to our nationin 2022, about six thousand a day, or more than four persons every minute, day and night? If we are such a horrible, oppressive place, why do they keep coming?
Vivek Ramaswamys own background better describes the real, exceptional America. Several decades ago, his parents moved to America from Kerala, a poor Indian state. Vivek went to school in Cincinnati, graduating from one of Ohios very best high schools (St. Xavier) as valedictorian. He then went to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and then to Yale Law School. He also launched a successful career as an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist while marrying his sweetheart, another super-achiever, who graduated from the Yale School of Medicine and is now a professor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. At 37, Ramaswamy has established himself as a leading commentator on American lifewhile running a business as well.
As a child, and later as a parent and grandparent, I was mesmerized by the childrens book The Little Engine That Could, which tells a story of how hard work and persistence could achieve the seemingly impossible task of getting a train over a mountain. It is a quintessentially American story of overcoming adverse conditions. Late-19th-century Americans were attracted to the story of Horatio Alger, who through hard work (and some luck), managed to move from rags to riches.
By contrast, todays universities seem to show disdain for achievement, evidenced by such things as rampant grade inflation, downplaying academic performance in college admissions, and even glorifying victimhood, often accompanied by attempts to force students and faculty alike to profess to their manifest sins in promoting the inequities that allegedly tarnish our nation.
One thing that universities respond to is money. Maybe, as Milton Friedman hinted to me almost precisely twenty years ago, the time has come for us to start taxing rather than subsidizing universities. Perhaps they are no longer serving the public good. For whom does the bell toll? Maybe a generation from now, it will elicit a mournful sound akin to Taps as it tolls amidst a sadly diminished university.