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Monday, December 11, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dave Barry

The Barry Doctrine: Don't Know Much About History

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WELL, you young people have gone and done it again.

I'm talking about the recent study showing that high-school students, to quote The Associated Press, "do not know basic facts about American history."

I hate to be a nag, but this is something like the 46,000th consecutive study showing that you young people are not cutting the academic mustard. Do you know how that makes us older people feel? It makes us feel GREAT. We go around saying to ourselves: "We may be fat and slow and achy and unhip and have hair sprouting from our noses like June asparagus, but at least we know the basic facts about American history."

According to The Associated Press, "more than half of America's high-school seniors do not know the intent of the Monroe Doctrine or the chief goal of United States foreign policy after World War II."

Is that shocking, or what? Of course, to be fair, we have to admit that, for most of the past 50 years, almost NOBODY knew what our foreign policy was. It was a secret. For a while there, in the early 1970s, the only person who knew anything about our foreign policy was Henry Kissinger, who kept it hidden in a secret compartment in his underwear, refusing even to show it to President Nixon, although he did occasionally bring it out to impress actresses he was dating.

In fact, we now know, thanks to recent news reports, that NONE of our postwar presidents really knew what our foreign policy was, because the Central Intelligence Agency (motto: "Proudly Overthrowing Fidel Castro Since 1962") was passing along false information about the Russians. (There is an excellent reason why the CIA did this, but if I told you what it is, I would have to kill you.)

Basically, the CIA led the presidents to believe that the Russians were this well-disciplined, super-advanced military power with all kinds of high-tech atomic laser death rays; whereas in fact the Russians, if they had actually fought us, would have had to rely primarily on the tactic of throwing turnips. So we spent billions of dollars on items such as the Stealth Bomber, which by the way we are still building, in case we ever need to sneak an airplane over there to drop bombs on, say, a Burger King.

But my point is that most of us had no idea what the U.S. foreign policy was until the election of Bill Clinton, who, to his credit, has established a clear and consistent foreign policy, which is as follows: Whenever the president of the United States gets anywhere near any foreign head of state, living or dead, he gives that leader a big old hug. This has proven to be an effective way to get foreign leaders to do what we want: Many heads of state are willing to sign any random document that President Clinton thrusts in front of them, without reading it, just so he will stop embracing them. This is how the prime minister of Sweden, in a recent visit to the White House, wound up purchasing nearly $4,000 worth of Amway products.

But getting back to the issue at hand, which is the intent of the Monroe Doctrine: I am shocked that more than half of today's high-school seniors do not know what it is. This kind of ignorance was NOT tolerated when I was a student at Pleasantville (N.Y.) High School, where I studied history under a teacher named - I am not making this up - Oscar Fossum. No sir, we LEARNED our history back then, and we learned it the hard way: By being subjected to surprise quizzes in which we had to write 200-word essay-style answers to questions on topics we knew virtually nothing about, such as:

THE INTENT OF

THE MONROE DOCTRINE

"The Monroe Doctrine is, without a doubt, one of the most important and famous historical doctrines ever to be set forth in doctrine form. And yet, by the same token, we must ask ourselves: Why? What is the quality that sets this particular doctrine - the Monroe Doctrine - apart from all the others? There can be no question that the answer to this question is: The intent. For when we truly understand the intent of a doctrine such as the Monroe Doctrine, or for that matter any other doctrine, only then can we truly know exactly what that doctrine was intended to accomplish as far as doctrinal intention is concerned. This has been an issue of great significance to historians and human beings alike throughout the distinguished history of this great country that we call, simply, `the United States of America,' a country that has produced more than its share of famous doctrines and great heroes and, yes, educators of the caliber of Mr. Fossum, doing such a superb job of preparing the young people of tomorrow for the day when we, as a society and yet by the same token also as a nation, finally reach 200 words."

See what I mean, young people? Thanks to my solid academic training, today I can write hundreds of words on virtually any topic without possessing a shred of information, which is how I got a good job in journalism. So I urge you to work hard in school and learn your history, because - Who knows? - one of you could be the next Abraham Lincoln, inventor of the steam engine.

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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