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Can You Name the First Five U.S. Presidents?

YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia, Commentary, Video, Text: Torriano Melancon / Video: Amanze Emenike and Roland Ballard Posted: Oct 21, 2009

Editor's Note: Only one in four public high school students in Oklahoma can name the first president of the United States, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Torriano Melancon explains why young people don't know American history. Amanze Emenike and Roland Ballard are interns for YO! Youth Outlook. Melancon, 19, is a contributor to YO! Youth Outlook.

YO! Thoughts: Who Are the First Five U.S. Presidents? from New America Media on Vimeo.

America: Land of the free and home of the brave. A nation oozing with pride. A nation that has spewed forth some of the greatest intellects and most courageous leaders. This country was founded by some of these great thinkers.

I wonder what George Washington would say if he knew such a high proportion of Americans don't know who he is. I was shocked, but not too shocked, to learn that 75 percent of Oklahoma public high school students couldnt name our first president. While I could say something unreasonable, and point my finger at these kids for not knowing the first president, I'm not going to do that.

One reason is because I have been in their situation. As a recent high school graduate, I can still remember the agony of world and U.S. history classes. U.S. history was the kryptonite of junior year. I failed the first semester that year, so I had to make up classes in night school during the second semester. I barely passed.

U.S history was one of the worst classes I took. Initially, I didn't expect it to be difficult. When you think of U.S. history, you assume, This shouldn't be that bad; I am American after all. But I quickly discovered that being American doesn't imply that you're a historian of American history.

Then again, 18th and 19th century U.S history isn't the most fascinating subject matter. It's worse if you dont have a teacher who can engage you in the subject. I never thought I would be interested in history, but that changed when I took an African-American history class my senior year. It was my favorite class in high school. I could see parallels between society at the time, and contemporary society.

For example, today, there is still slave money circulating through our economy, and slavery still exists -- though under a new name: prison. There is even a prison in Louisiana that is an actual plantation. Unlike U.S. history, this class wasn't sugar-coated. African-American history took me below the surface to analyze certain events like the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation was primarily instituted as a military strategy to cripple the Confederacy, not to give slaves freedom. The class taught me that the world was about as messed up in the past as it is nowadays. Understanding these parallels showed me that events that happened years ago are still relevant today.

Theres another reason young people can't name the first president: our perception of patriotism has evolved over the years. The people who immigrate here are often much more interested in U.S history than those of us who were born here. I've taken a sample U.S. citizenship test. As soon as I skimmed the questions, my mind locked up. I only knew about half of the answers. It's sad that it's a requirement for immigrants to learn this information, while we American-born citizens aren't tested on U.S. history.

We are born into our heritage, but often, we know nothing about it. We celebrate the 4th of July annually, but maybe only half of us actually could name the date the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Our culture has slowly turned from favoring news and momentous events to favoring TV shows and meaningless, superficial aesthetics. This shift has exacerbated our detachment from American history. Unless we can figure out a way to hold onto our identity, and the great American pride that forged this country, history will become a subject exclusive to the historian.

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