Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Don’t Know Much about History

Bill and Ted discovered that learning about history can be fun in this 1989 film

The highest law in the United States was created in a document in the year ______. That document is called the:__________________(1).

I spent the last two semesters teaching a college class. On May 1st of this year, as in several prior years, I visited a local public school on Law Day and spoke about the history of our legal system, including the Bill of Rights. In previous years I’ve guest lectured in college classes, and occasionally visited classes in local schools to talk about my profession. Every time I visit a class or school I ask questions about the history of our country and its legal system, and I pay attention to the answers. In 1996 I founded a tutoring program in the Dougherty Public Schools which paid gifted students from Westover High School to go to Magnolia Elementary School’s after school program and tutor individual students in reading and math. (It was extremely successful, which explains why the School Board let it die after a year.)

What I’ve seen scares me. I can mention the name of a rap star who appeared at a Superior Court hearing in Albany last fall (Chris Bridges, a/k/a “Ludacris”) and every member of the class knows who he is. I ask where Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Press, Freedom of Assembly, and Freedom of Speech are found (2) , and 75 percent of my audience gives me blank stares.

When we discuss the history of our country, half of my class might think that the Revolutionary War was fought in the 19th century (3). If Ben Franklin, Ulysses Grant, and Alexander Hamilton weren’t on our money, most students wouldn’t have the slightest idea who they were. (Sometimes it isn’t all about the Benjamins.)

Things I took for granted that every American past grade school should know- (4) how many branches were created in the document which is the blueprint for our government- it turns out that less than half can answer on a written exam.

When I ask them how law is created (5) and who creates it in our country, a slightly more esoteric question, to be sure, no one knows the complete answer. Many people know the answer to the question: What is the highest court in the United States (6)? Virtually no one knows the name of the Chief Justice of the United States (7) .

Who fought in World War I (8) ? World War II (9)? Who said “Never get involved in a land war in Asia and later warned against the “military-industrial complex (10)?” Why did we send soldiers to fight in Vietnam (11) ? What were the “killing fields” of Cambodia and who stopped the killing (12)? These are the things that every American should know before choosing our leaders and our leaders should know when evaluating our country’s obligations in places like Rwanda and Darfur.

There are two separate court systems in the United States but both have their final appeals heard by the same court. Those two systems are called _________________ courts and _________________________ courts. Decisions involving every American are made daily in those places, but most don’t know how the judges are chosen or what their jobs entail.(13)

Oh yeah, the title of this column is from.... (14)

ANSWERS (all answers are from my walking around knowledge. Any errors are entirely due to my laziness in not looking them up.)

1. 1787, Constitution.

2. The First Amendment to the Constitution.

3. It was 1775-1783. Franklin was our emissary to France and was a signer of the Constitution, Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury, shot dead in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr circa 1803. Grant was a Union civil war general who accepted Confederate Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse in 1865 and served two terms as President (1869-1877).

4. Three: Legislative (Congress), Executive (President), and Judicial (Supreme Court).

5. Statutes by the legislature and common law in case decisions by the judiciary.

6. Supreme Court of the United States.

7. In my lifetime, John Roberts, who replaced William Rehnquist, who replaced Warren Burger, who replaced Earl Warren.

8. When the war began in 1914, the Central Powers were Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The allies initially included France, Great Britain, Russia (which dropped out after their second revolution in 1917), Italy, and the United States, which entered the war in 1917.

9. The Axis Powers when the war began in 1939 were Germany, Italy (on the other side this time under Fascist Benito Mussolini) and Japan. Russia signed a treaty with Germany in 1939 and divided Poland with Germany, but was later attacked by Germany in 1941. The Allies included France, which surrendered in 1940, Great Britain and the Commonwealth Nations, including Canada and Australia, which fought fore the duration, 1939-1945, and the United States, which didn’t enter the war until December 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

10. United States President Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) after the French requested U.S. assistance in Vietnam circa 1954. This occurred shortly after we obtained a cease fire to end the Korean War (1950-1954). His warning came as he left office, when he accurately forecast the now decades long unholy alliance between high Pentagon officials and huge defense contractors which employed former politicians and members of the military.

11. Our military intervention in Vietnam began in earnest shortly after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco when an ill fated and poorly conceived CIA operation to overthrow Castro failed under a new President, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had inherited the invasion plan from the Eisenhower Administration. After the U.S. refused to assist the Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban military handily defeated them, Kennedy’s advisors, including his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, felt that the Soviet Union wouldn’t respect Kennedy unless he showed that he was willing to make a military commitment to fighting Communism. Vietnam was an opportunity to showcase his willingness to be tough, much as, 32 years later, President Bush and his neoconservative advisors decided to use a military invasion of Iraq as a demonstration of America’s military might.

12. After President Nixon authorized an incursion into Cambodia circa 1970 to stop the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from using the erstwhile neutral country as a vacation spot and resupply route, the local Communists under leader Pol Pot eventually overthrew the monarchy and when the U.S. pulled out of Southeast Asia in 1973-1975, the Pol Pot lead communists murdered all intellectuals and potential opponents of the regime. They first drove them out of the cities into the countryside (hence “killing fields.”) They went so far as to kill people who wore eyeglasses as suspected intellectuals. The killing was ended not by the U.S. or any other democracy, but by the Vietnamese, who invaded the country and deposed Pol Pot.

13. State Courts and Federal Courts. There are 50 states (many students still don’t know this) and the federal system has three tiers- district courts in each state, circuit courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court. Federal judges are all appointed for life; most State judges are elected.

14. A Sam Cooke song of the 60’s called “What a Wonderful World.” (And I cheated and looked that one up.)


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