My US history class: No one’s heard of Margaret Chase Smith

Every fall a college puts out a list  of once important people and of once major events that incoming undergraduate students may never have heard of because those individuals and events took place before they were born or in their first years of life. The principal purpose of the list is to alert faculty not to expect much if any knowledge of those persons and events. The implication is that these young men and women can hardly be expected to know history before their own time.

As a professional historian, I have never accepted that view. No doubt in part because I still love to study, to teach, and to write about history, I strongly believe that being good American citizens means having at least a passing acquaintance with American history. Yet I never blame my students for their increasing ignorance of the recent past, much less the more distant past. And I am not about to demonize any one group, such as social studies/history teachers. They get enough abuse from the likes of Governor LePage and New Jersey Governor Christie, among others.

Still, as jaded as I have become over the years in not expecting most undergraduates to know the most basic facts of the nation’s past, I was shocked in my current American history survey course at the University of Maine to discover that not a single one of the twenty students—all but two who have grown up in Maine—had ever heard of Senator Margaret Chase Smith. I had given hints to try to generate her name, such as her home and museum in Skowhegan and her courageous denunciation of Senator Joseph McCarthy when no other Senator or Representative–or, for that matter, President Dwight Eisenhower—would dare to criticize him for branding so many patriotic Americans as  subversive Communists.But nothing worked. (When the Senate finally reprimanded the Republican McCarthy, all Democratic Senators save one showed up for the vote. The exception was Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. He claimed illness. Despite different party memberships, the Kennedy family had close ties to “Tailgunner Joe.” Indeed, the saintly brother Robert worked for McCarthy and greatly admired him.)

I do not conclude that this one relatively small class is representative of most Maine college students. But I strongly suspect that it is far from unique. That bothers me a lot.