Years ago, my mom sent me an 8×11 photo of Churchill, FDR, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference. She knows my love for history and she envisioned me hanging this on my wall at work. I did.
The photo has followed me from job to job in my career. I am astonished at the amount of people who do not recognize the photo or the three men in the front. When I first hung up the photo, I worked at a technology company outside of Philadelphia that made software for banks and credit unions. While a few people in office were over the age of 50, most were in their 20s or 30s.
Several coworkers saw the photo and asked, “What’s that?”
I started to reply and then stopped myself. “Wait a minute,” I said. I pointed to the photo and gave them the hairy eyeball, “Tell me who these people are.”
They scratched their heads and thought about it. One of them finally responded, “I know you like Churchill, so one of them is probably Churchill.” They pointed to Stalin. I shook my head. They pointed to FDR. I shook my head again. Finally, pointing to Churchill one of them said, “I knew it was the fat guy. I should have guessed him.”
“Okay,” I said. “How about him?” pointing to FDR.
“He was a U.S. President.” They shook their heads. “He served more terms than any other president in U.S. history.” They shook their heads again. “The author of the New Deal!” I exclaimed. “He’s on the dime!” They still didn’t know. “Franklin! Delano! Roosevelt!”
“Ohhhh,” one of them sighed. “I didn’t recognize him without his wheelchair.”
“His wheelchair?” Pondering the response I said, “I don’t think he was ever in his wheelchair for public photos.”
“He was in his wheelchair in Annie.” In a split second I realized that the most common memory people in their 20s and 30s have of FDR is from the 1982 film Annie starring Carol Burnett and Tim Curry. In the film, there is a musical number in the White House where Annie, Daddy Warbucks, and the Roosevelts sing “Tomorrow.”
Next, I pointed to Stalin. “I’m going to just throw out some key words to help you out. Communism . . . Soviet Union . . . Killed 20-40 million of his own people.” They were clueless. Finally, I tried a different approach, “Rhymes with Sarah Palin!” I pronounced her last name as paul-in.
The eyes lit up on one of them, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Stalin?”
After some discussion about how I was shocked they could not recognize these people. One of them asked, “Who cares? Why are they important?”
Feeling challenged, I asked, “Do you remember who Hitler was?”
“Yes, of course,” they all nodded.
“These men beat Hitler.”
That was probably the most simplistic answer I could have given, but I knew they would understand it. I was tempted to explain how these men decided to carve up Europe after the war and subsequently ensured 46 years of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, but I decided to let it go.
Not everyone in the office was clueless about the photo. In fact, there were people insulted that I would even quiz them about it. Out of 31 people, 11 could not identify any of the men in the photo. Interestingly, each of these 11 people had college degrees (obviously no history majors!). There were 12 people who instantly recognized the photo and they typically mentioned “Yalta” in their response.
One Ukrainian immigrant not only named the three men in front, but he also started naming men in the back. He explained that while in school, he had to study this photo. When I told him that one out of three people in the office could not name anyone in the photo, he smiled and responded in a thick, Ukrainian accent, “Well, that is probably due to America’s education system.”
Another eight people could name at least one or two people in the photo. One heavy cigar smoking instantly recognized Churchill. I thought that was worth some points.
What does this mean? More than 35% of the people in that office could not identify Churchill, FDR, or Stalin. What is worse, most of them did not care. The ignorance, I can live with. As long as there is a desire to learn, then ignorance has a chance to fade. The willful, almost aggressive ignorance bothers me. In times like these, I often think of Malcolm X’s quote, “History is a people’s memory, and without a memory man is demoted to the lower animals.”
Without history, we have no understanding or context to how the world became as it is today. We have no understanding of our cultural origins. We are like apes that are born, live a meaningless life, and die.