The memory is all but lost, even though the legacy is all around us. You meet it every time you set foot in a national park; pay Social Security; thank a World War II veteran; every time you spend a dime; or see Mount Rushmore. The legacy of the Roosevelt family is an essential part of America’s story.
Before the names Kennedy and Bush were synonymous with American political dynasties, there were the Roosevelts. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt steered our nation through some of the most difficult times in our history. Eleanor Roosevelt became a figure of international prominence and public affection.
As Americans prepare to watch filmmaker Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” airing this week, a new study suggests that, despite the family’s importance in our history, their legacies are being forgotten.
According to the study, only 60 percent of Americans surveyed know FDR was president during World War II, and less than half knew he was the president responsible for the New Deal.
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The situation is similar for Theodore: Just two in five Americans associated him with the Panama Canal. Only about a quarter could identify him with the Bull Moose Party – an especially lackluster result considering the survey was plain, old multiple choice.
The results are disappointing, but they’re not new. Previous studies on historical amnesia from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have revealed that a quarter of Americans don’t know that D-Day occurred during World War II. Among Americans 18 to 34, that number grows to a chilling one-third.
Americans are suffering from historical amnesia, and we should be concerned.
Part of the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of our colleges and universities. Nationwide, just 18 percent of colleges require students to take a course in American history or government, according to the What Will They Learn? study ( www.whatwilltheylearn.com).
U.S. News and World Report recently released another rating system that uses measures such as student selectivity and alumni donations to determine which colleges are “best.” Unfortunately, those measures have very little to do with whether a student will graduate prepared for the challenges of career and citizenship.
It’s critical that students and parents peel away reputation to focus on results; too many colleges graduate students with no more knowledge of foundational subjects than a 12th grader.
We cannot afford to let the wonder of our nation’s history fade.
At a wedding almost 110 years ago in New York City, President Teddy Roosevelt walked his favorite niece down the aisle.
His niece was named Eleanor, and her groom would also become president – President Franklin Roosevelt.
We have a rich and vibrant history, as well as an obligation to remember our past. It may not be critical to memorize every line of the Declaration of Independence or list the dates of every battle during World War II, but if we forget the underlying significance of these events, we will neither understand the present nor be ready for the future.
Take the time to enjoy history again. Watch Ken Burns’ documentary. And demand that colleges and universities stop shirking their responsibility to parents, taxpayers, students –and most important – our future.
Daniel Burnett is the director of communications for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher education nonprofit that fights for historical literacy on college campuses.