Many seem clueless about the Holocaust, segregation, and other pivotal events of history, professors say.
Students step onto college campuses today less aware or concerned with the past.
It's more pronounced than the usual grousing of old instructors about each new generation.
Bill Howe noticed it in his master's level education course at the University of Connecticut.
"Students were woefully ignorant of our history - particularly our civil rights history," the past president of the National Association for Multicultural Education said at the group's recent convention in Philadelphia.
Many don't know of U.S. internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, Title IX for women's sports, segregation, and the war with Mexico giving the U.S. California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
"Mexicans didn't cross the border to the United States," Howe said. "We made a war so we took over their land.
"The concern is these are teachers who are going to influence our children even though they don't have the grasp of history. Their ignorance could affect politics."
Howe notes that except for nontraditional students in his multicultural education class, fewer were alive when President John Kennedy was assassinated, the Vietnam War ended or the space shuttle Challenger blew up. But that's no excuse for them knowing nothing about these defining events.
Other educators at the convention said they'd encountered students with no knowledge of the Holocaust or who Emmett Till was or why he was significant in the civil rights struggle.
Howe added that other students were unaware of the depth of contributions of Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. Schools don't teach it.
Nefertiti Burton, an associate professor in the theater department at the University of Louisville, said she began noticing the knowledge vacuum in the 1990s when she was at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Black students didn't know that their forebears were descendants of slaves. They'd heard of the slave trade, but their parents, grandparents and others never explained the connection.
"They didn't want that part of their history to be known to their young ones," said Burton, who taught a course in African-American theater.
It's part of the "New South," which demands that people look forward and not backward. But it has disconnected the students from the plays, literature and history that Burton teaches, making it less real to each new generation.
"They don't know who they are so anyone can tell them anything about themselves," she said. "When you have a vacuum something is going to fill it up."
This isn't a new trend. It's what black educators railed against a century ago.
At the convention, we watched the documentary, "Precious Knowledge," which showed how ethnic studies courses in Arizona were eliminated. Backward lawmakers labeled the curriculum un-American even though it motivated Latino students to stay in school, go to college and become excited about learning. Making education less relevant to the growing minority population keeps them in an underclass.
Aukram Burton, a diversity/multicultural specialist in Louisville, said the same trend is occurring in South Africa, where people don't want black kids to know about their forebears' struggles. Even black parents say they want to spare their children from being angry over the "wretched past."
"But you have to look backward to go forward," Aukram Burton said. "That's the part we've given up. Kids are left with no knowledge of self.
"They are out there naked. They have no defense with what's lurking there for them."
What negatively affects young people also hurts the nation, Howe said. Without history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. People are easily swayed by old rhetoric against immigrants. They jump at going into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, having forgotten the quagmire of Vietnam.
"It influences political decisions that we make," Howe said. "It influences the discourse and social justice."
The No Child Left Behind law is partly to blame for emphasizing math and English testing but not history or the arts.
"We need our teachers to set things straight," Howe said.
Everyone has to contribute. For the future of the nation, the past must never be forgotten.
Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of the Kansas City Star's Editorial Board.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.