Millennial ignorance

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 29 June 2018

“One of the uses of history is to free us of a falsely imagined past”, the late American legal scholar Robert Bork once wrote. One might add that another use is the prevention of repeat mistakes.

But a new paper from our colleagues at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney suggests the younger generation is bound to make wrong choices because they know little history anymore.

In Millennials and Socialism, Tom Switzer and Charles Jacobs document the attitudes of Australians born between 1980 and 1996. It is a generation who would not remember the Cold War, the Soviet Union or China before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. It is also a fortunate generation since Australia’s last recession dates to 1991.

As these young Australians grew up in a well-performing liberal economy, one might think that they would hold favourable attitudes towards capitalism and view socialism with suspicion.

Yet the opposite is the case. A large majority of Australian millennials find socialism attractive. And they believe that capitalism has failed.

Such views are grounded in ignorance. Australian millennials think that ordinary people are worse off now than 40 years ago (when, in fact, disposable income has gone up for all Australians over that period). They believe that spending on education had fallen in the last decade (when it has increased by about a third, even adjusted for inflation).

The lack of historical knowledge is astonishing, especially regarding historical figures. Large numbers of Australian millennials have never heard of Mao (51 percent), Lenin (42 percent) or even Stalin (32 percent).

Interestingly, only 5 percent did not know Hitler. Perhaps that is because of the endless documentaries on the Nazi leader. Or is it because the education system focuses on the evils of fascism while neglecting the equivalent evils at the other extreme of the political spectrum?

From a New Zealand perspective, there is no reason for smugness about our Australian friends’ lack of history knowledge. Had a similar opinion poll been conducted among Kiwi millennials, the results would have been similar – or worse.

Many Kiwi millennials, perhaps including the Prime Minister, believe that Rogernomics had not saved but destroyed that New Zealand. A look at the actual economic record suggests otherwise.

Historical knowledge is not a nice-to-have. It is essential if we want to understand the present and shape our future.