John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a CBS senior national correspondent and Chief Political Analyst. He is also a Contributing Writer to The Atlantic and is co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

What is the point of knowing history?

I was fascinated, like everyone else, by the findings that Americans have trouble passing the citizenship test:

Woodrow Wilson Foundation Finds Only One State Can Pass U.S. Citizenship Exam

I’m curious about the questions people missed. It’s harder for me to understand why it is important that people know there are 27 amendments to the constitution. Two of them cancel out anyway so I feel like there should be 25. The short answer is that the fact isn’t important, but the adjacent knowledge and understanding you probably gained in order to know the fact is important. The fact is ground zero, but the blast site is the important stuff (Does that analogy work? There should be a way to have people vote on whether an analogy works so a writer can change it; Of course, an analogy only needs to work so much in a context. Forcing people to have a stout think about one may skew the question).

Still, is the blast zone around 27 modifications to the Constitution important? By contrast, knowing that the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787 and not 1776 is important. It was 11 years after the Declaration of Independence which highlights that at first America was a nation of revisionists. They were risk-takers and experimenters. It was a big national do-over. We modified, tinkered, fixed the original document. It suggests evolution, growth: an attempt to get the balance right.

In our current political moment, knowledge that puts us back in touch with that moment of national revision does seem to me to be helpful in putting our current political situation in context.

On a separate matter: I wonder what the 10 most important facts are about American citizenship. There’s no way to actually come up with an answer, but it would be fun to think through.

1 thought on “What is the point of knowing history?”

  1. Yes to ground zero analogy, though I had to pause to reread and think it through. Know nothing of WW Institute, but his name immediately brought to mind those who want to erase his name from prominent places. That, and reading “Black Like Me,” makes me think about how we each frame the history of the US and what is truly important. Words on paper don’t necessarily translate into reality in our country. As you say, it’s the collateral damage that forms history, making me wonder who wrote the test and what motivated their choices. I worked in a curriculum office once and my boss told me one day it’s very hard to write a good multiple choice test that adequately assesses a student’s knowledge. You can manipulate their answers by the choices you give them. Not unlike the difficulty in writing and conducting a survey. Physics tells us anytime we measure something we change it, however imperceptibly. I am also reminded of a conversation with a very intelligent man (an American) with flawless English who was impressed with a foreigner who taught English. His knowledge of English was far greater than my friend’s because he had to painstakingly learn the nuts and bolts of what was, for him, a foreign language. He knew the terminology and the reasoning for writing a perfect English sentence, but my friend knows how to speak English perfectly without being able to explain it (in spite of having studied that in school). We know what our Constitutional rights are without being able to pinpoint when the Constitution was written, or being able to quantify the amendments. History helps us appreciate why those rights are important by showing us what happens when you don’t have those rights vs what happens when you do. And who gets to enjoy those rights. Understanding the collateral damage is more important than being able to describe the mechanics and physics of the bomb that was dropped. More importantly, understanding why the bomb was dropped and who dropped, and if it is possible for us to stop bombs from being dropped in the first place. And that’s where you come in, and why we appreciate your train platform lectures as you traverse the country. Some people are still sitting at the station engaged in gazing at their navel, oblivious to the whizzing sound above.

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