It’s not uncommon for a senior generation to criticize and pass judgement on the younger generations of the day. And, most of the time, these criticisms are entirely subjective and arbitrary. However, over the past few years, millennials have been criticized on many occasions for their objective ignorance when it comes to history. This is especially troubling given the crucial importance of a proficient knowledge of history, as yesterday’s successes and failures are our greatest resources when it comes to making decisions for tomorrow.
The reasonable and founded judgement of today’s history-hating young adults has been perpetuated by numerous studies and polls that suggest millennials severely lack historical awareness. In particular, one study demonstrated that two-thirds of millenials do not know what Auschwitz was. Similarly, this deficiency was brought to light when 82 percent of eighth graders who took the U.S. history test as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress performed below a proficient level. To once and for all condemn this young generation for its impious disregard for history, a published poll revealed that 19 percent of teens in the U.S. mistakenly believe that America declared its independence from either France or Canada.
Millennials often rationalize their disengagement with history by arguing that it has no bearing on their life, or that there is little to gain from such a time-costly pursuit. However, history abounds with actions that directly impact our current state of affairs and lessons that wholly connect to the problems millennials aim to fix today. One such example is that of Rodney King.
On March 3, 1991, King was brutally beaten by police officers who were attempting to arrest him after a high-speed chase. One year after the initial incident, three of the four officers tried for assault were acquitted of all charges despite the fact that, according to a Gallup poll, 76 percent of people believed the police to be guilty.
Feelings of injustice among Los Angeles citizens kindled flames that literally engulfed parts of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, as it wasn’t long before the expressed frustrations acutely directed towards police officers transformed into undirected and indiscriminate violence. The six-day Los Angeles riots left 50 dead, 2,000 injured, 12,000 in jail, and $1 billion in damages. By the end of it all, the rioters paid a hefty price just to leave the city of Los Angeles with no substantive change in police conduct.
The lesson to be learned from this historical event is one of prudence and sensibility. The riots that ensued after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King were not only an ineffective means of enacting social change, they were a devastating force that rocked the lives of the innocent as well. Millennials, when engaging in socially motivated movements, move closer and closer to this form of protest without knowing the consequences. Instead, they should continually look to the past for what actions do or do not institute change, for if their actions do not effectively and explicitly support their broader motive, the collateral effects could be terrible.
This is but one instance in which history offers a valuable lesson to those who read it, and there are undoubtedly hundreds more. But, the sad truth of the matter is that millennials do not seem to care, and our institutions care even less. Although it’s true that history isn’t the most monetarily profitable vein of study, it is nonetheless an important subject that all students, irrespective of their disciplines, ought to learn. In this sense, a holistic education irrespective of major is of substantial value, as the only way to improve upon the past is to know a little history.