MOUNT VERNON, Va. — It was fitting that the buzz around George Washington’s homestead recently was about the first president’s overdue library books, just as the estate’s guardians were plotting a new presidential library in the founding father’s name.
It seems that the man who could not tell a lie failed to return a couple of volumes that were due on Nov. 2, 1789. That comes to more than 220 years late, or about $300,000 in fines.
Borrowed from the New York Society Library, the books were Emmerich de Vattel’s “Law of Nations,” dealing with international relations, and a collection of debates from Britain’s House of Commons. Some light reading for a man preoccupied with the business of creating a nation and learning how to be its president.
Although librarian Mark Bartlett says the library isn’t pursuing the fines, he would be happy to get the books back. Perchance to donate them to a new library bearing the last borrower’s name? Just a thought.
Washington’s lapse in returning his books provided a handy metaphor for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s biannual meeting, which I attended as an unpaid member of the advisory board. The main topic was the proposed library, which will be a repository of Washington’s books and papers as well as a center for educational outreach and scholarly research. With the addition of a residence for scholars, serious students can immerse themselves for several weeks in all things George.
Officially named the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, the 41,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 2012. Assuming, that is, the ladies’ association, now in its 151st year of running the estate exclusively with private funds, can raise $20 million this year.
An initial $38 million already has been pledged by Smith, chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, but spade will not touch earth until the balance is secured.
It’s an ambitious and noble project that will fill an astonishing void. At a time when presidential libraries are monuments to legacy and ego, it is surprising that the first president of the United States doesn’t have one.
Those errant books, meanwhile, are a reminder of so much else that is missing regarding George Washington. Too little is known about him and the founding era because too little is taught. And though America’s growing historical illiteracy is well-known to educators and policymakers, a glance at the statistics likely would surprise most Americans.
In 2006, for instance, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute tested the civic literacy of 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities. The average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.
Also in 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card,” found that only about one-sixth of students in grades four, eight and 12 are proficient in American history.
Students are brilliant, apparently, when it comes to popular culture, something we’ve long known. In a 1999 survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), 98 percent of students from 55 top colleges and universities could identify the rap singer Snoop Doggy Dogg and 99 percent knew who Beavis and Butt-head were.
It is one thing to debate the merits of American exceptionalism, though at the current rate of our growing national ignorance there soon won’t be anyone with whom to argue. It is another not to know the essential facts of our founding.
Students can’t be blamed for not knowing what they haven’t been taught. Another ACTA study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. In the lower grades, those who do study history will bump into the name George Washington far less often than did previous generations. Washington coverage in many textbooks is 10 percent of what it was 50 years ago, according to Mount Vernon executive director Jim Rees.
Even so, adults don’t know much either. A national survey of adults commissioned by the American Revolution Center found that 83 percent failed a basic test on the American Revolution.
We may not know much, but we seem to understand, as the Founders did, that a free society can function only insofar as its citizens are well educated. The same survey found that 90 percent of Americans think that knowledge of the American Revolution is very important.
Washington may have forgotten to return his library books, but at least there’s comfort in the certainty that he read them.