In higher education we spend ample time discussing the idea of a core curriculum. Every university comes up with a buzzwordish name for it, but the concept is the same: to define the basic, bare minimum knowledge that we feel a student must have, in addition to whatever specialized knowledge they get in their field(s) of interest, to leave college with a useful understanding of the world and the skills required to function in it. Unsurprisingly these core curricula focus on writing/composition, basic math and science, and history. While it is fair to note that some students get college degrees without mastering some or all of these core skills, polling data shows that Americans are woefully ignorant about history and world affairs – to a troubling extent.
If I may briefly mount my pedagogical high horse, I consider two historical events – if you could only pick two – absolutely essential to understanding modern American society and government.
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The first is the American Civil War. The other is World War II. No, I don't believe students benefit from memorizing the names of battles and generals. I do think that if one is really to understand the fundamental political conflicts in the United States, an understanding of the causes and aftermath of the Civil War is indispensable. Likewise, modern global politics (and a good deal of American exceptionalism in policy both foreign and domestic) is rooted in WWII.
K-12 classes still overwhelmingly choose to teach history chronologically. This, in my experience and what I commonly hear from students, results in a seriously detrimental lack of emphasis on modern history. The academic year begins with ancient Greeks and Romans and ends sometime in May, usually having gotten no further than the Industrial Revolution or perhaps World War I. Accordingly, I get a ton of young people who, through no fault of their own, have been taught more about Plato and Tacitus than about the Cold War, decolonization, the Vietnam War, globalization, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and 9/11 combined. Recently I found a class of 25 honors students – excellent students – totally ignorant of the basic aspects of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent propaganda surge leading to the Iraq War. And why should they know? They were 8 when it happened, and it has never been taught to them.
American students do get the Civil War. They might get it in bizarre or ideologically motivated ways (some southern schools, I discovered, continue to teach that slavery was not the root cause of the War) but they get it. They have a basic understanding of what happened. But World War II? The Holocaust? The Treaty of Versaiilles and the rise of Nazism? The complete devastation of the industrial powers of Europe and Asia that led to 20 years of unparalleled economic growth in the U.S.? Western nations' abandonment of Poland, exploitation of empires, and refusal to take Jewish refugees? They have nothing, really. What they know about WWII is what they get from movies and from Call of Duty video games. They often believe (thanks to films like Saving Private Ryan) that Americans fought the Nazis essentially alone. They rarely know that the Soviet Union was America's ally, and primarily responsible for the military defeat of the Third Reich. They rarely understand why or how the Holocaust happened, and the economic scapegoating of Jews and other "others" during the post-WWI economic collapse in Germany. They fail to recognize how the War accelerated decades of technological development (radar, nuclear power, aircraft, electronics, medicine, etc) into a few short years.
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They think – if they think anything at all about it – that America beat the Nazis and someone else (either the Chinese or Japanese) because we invented the nuclear bomb.
Everything – from international terrorism to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 20th Century American economic growth to the housing crisis to the Vietnam War to the woes of underdeveloped countries – about the modern world can be understood completely only by tracing the roots of these events at least as far back to WWII. And increasingly I – I can't speak for anyone else here, but I doubt I am alone – find that students have the least knowledge about these more recent events. Try saying "Arab Oil Embargo" or "Mikhail Gorbachev" to a room of college freshmen and see what kind of looks you get. Hell, try it with a group of adults; it probably won't be much better. We know very little of recent history and what we do know is often wrong. Is it any wonder that opinions about current events rarely make sense?
Perhaps the recent past is deemphasized because it is assumed, incorrectly, that students somehow know this information because "it didn't happen that long ago." Or maybe the design of grade- and high school curricula continues to talk about ancient times at the expense or exclusion of the 20th Century. In either case the consequences are the same: parochial attitudes about the world and a skewed understanding of any issue that takes place outside of the bubble around our immediate lives.