So, a friend laments, he knows this kid who tells his 17-year-old girlfriend Smokin' Joe Frazier has died. Who? she asks. He's astonished, assuring her Frazier, a heavyweight boxing champ, was a great fighter, the guy who beat Muhammad Ali on points in the much-ballyhooed "Fight of the Century."
That's impossible, she argues, because Ali was not old enough to be in the war. She was, it turns out, confusing Ali with Osama Bin Laden.
That sort of thing gives me night sweats, not so much because she might someday have children but because she is far from being the only one among us who is intellectually stunted (check the comments in the newspaper and you'll see what I mean). What does the bottomless abyss of ignorance about this country's history and culture mean for the future? We may be toast, even if we survive Barack Obama.
Despite the easy availability of mandatory schooling, social networking, Google and other search engines, the Internet, cellphones, widescreen TVs and satellite radio, not to mention books by the millions, we seem to be getting dumber minute by minute. Even with news websites ramming information down our throats 24 hours a day and the incredible availability of information instantaneously, too many of us embrace ignorance as if it were a good thing.
Instead of learning this country's history and culture, the foundation of everything we hold dear, the things that could end racism, hatred, bigotry, we are too busy being narcissists, texting about every inconsequential, piddling detail of our lives. "Clipped my toenails," we Tweet. Huh? We have a desperate need to be plugged in, to belong to an amorphous, digital beehive, not to be alone even as we devolve. We cannot stop talking to listen; cannot be bothered to learn, instead reveling in the crass vulgarity of pop culture, equating it with reality. We pretend a drive-by of a hip-hop star somehow is as important as the moral and intellectual disintegration of America's institutions.
Make no mistake, many of us are dumber than stumps. Despite myriad resources instantly available, too many of us still believe the Civil War (or War of Northern Aggression, as right-thinking people remember it) was fought only over slavery or that Alaska's gas pipeline dreams are brand new, not 50 years old. Some of us have no idea about Korea or Vietnam and have no clue that Hitler was, indeed, a horrid man who killed at least 12 million innocents, or that civil rights in this nation were hard-won. Too many of us do not know hundreds of millions have been killed by their own governments worldwide. Instead, we whine about repaying student loans.
It is beyond us that China essentially owns us, that our finances are a wreck, that our children are in debt to the tune of nearly $15 trillion. In a generation, Iraq and Afghanistan will be distant memories, along with the hard lessons learned.
Without a solid grounding in our history and culture, we easily are tricked. We forget, for instance, that Herman Cain cannot, by any legitimate measure, be considered the prototypical philandering presidential candidate, as many would have us believe. Bill Clinton beat him to the punch with "bimbo eruptions" and tapes and denials. John Kennedy was way ahead of Clinton, and Franklin D. Roosevelt was ahead of him when it comes to presidential hanky-panky. There were others. You can look it up.
Who do we blame? Schools, for not pounding into our kids everything from the Magna Carta, to the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, to the Constitution, to recent Supreme Court decisions that changed the face of the nation? We could pin it on teachers but that is unfair.
Schools can help by spending more time teaching not only what happened in America but the reasons and consequences. But parents -- yes, tired, overworked parents -- must do the heavy lifting. You want your child to read? Read with them. Make them read. Talk to them about history. The Constitution. The Bill of Rights. The rule of law. What's important. What's not.
Poet and philosopher George Santayana tells us in "Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense": "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Remembering the past is one thing; not knowing it to begin with is quite another.
Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com.