One-hundred and fifty years ago this week, Union shots ripped the air outside a quiet Pennsylvania town. Rebel cavalry returned fire, and Gettysburg — the bloodiest battle of the Civil War — began.
Just three days cost 8,000 lives and left more than 35,000 wounded or missing. Later that year, when President Abraham Lincoln memorialized the men who died at Gettysburg, he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
A century and a half later, are we living up to Lincoln’s promise?
Tragically, the answer is no. A recent study by my employer, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, found that less than 18 percent of recent college graduates could identify the Gettysburg Address as the source of the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” That same study found that only 17 percent could correctly identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. And a survey of seniors at America’s most selective institutions in 2000 found that 40 percent could not even place the Civil War in the correct half century.
But it’s not just the Civil War that’s being lost on America’s students. When given a multiple choice answer to identify in which war the Battle of the Bulge occurred, barely two in five college graduates answered World War II.
Too often, students graduate from college today without exposure to military history — or even any American history at all. According to ACTA’s study “What Will They Learn?,” a nationwide study of core curricula, less than 20 percent of colleges and universities require a foundational course in American history or government.
In a recent book, professors Donald Downs and Ilia Murtazashvili examined the state of military history at America’s top 20 history departments.
They found that half of those departments did not have a single scholar working on traditional military history.
Unsurprisingly, course offerings are slim. According to the authors, six of the 20 universities offered no courses in traditional military history in the academic year studied. Most of the others offered only a handful of courses.
Over the last several decades, the growth of cultural and social history have opened up new avenues of research and revealed valuable insights. But at the same time we have unduly neglected more traditional fields. Political and diplomatic history have declined at many universities. Military history, once a staple subject in history departments, is vanishing. Both teaching and research suffer when universities no longer seek understanding of the armed conflicts in our history.
Like it or not, today’s students will become leaders in a world threatened and tempted by war. And they will become citizens of a nation that — like every nation — was shaped by conflict and continues to be challenged by it. American independence, which we will celebrate this week, was won through a war. This week we also remember our deadliest war — but one that gave our nation “a new birth of freedom.”
Ignoring war does not make us peaceable, and studying it will not make us warlike. But understanding military history may make us cautious and grave when we consider war and generous when we end it. Lincoln knew this. That is how he could lead America through four years of bloodshed and then call on the victors to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” It is an example that we should not soon forget.
William Gonch is the Senior Program Officer for Communications at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.