Few great men have ever roamed this earth. If Americans were wise (and I’m afraid we’re not), we’d sit at their feet, hang on every word, and soak up their insights. The fact is, though many of the greatest Americans are long gone, their wisdom lives on. Thanks to their personal writings and the historian’s diligent conservancy, we have ready access to the next best thing to sitting at their feet.

Woefully, we waste it.

History books go unread. The subject is called a slog. We scorn our ancestors and contemptuously cut ourselves off from their greatness. And we’re dumber for it.

The more I study history, the more I grow dismayed for this generation. We are not as enlightened as we like to think. In fact, it seems to me, we are incredibly vacuous compared to those who came before us. It’s not that every American or even many Americans in the past were as great as a Washington or Lincoln. The truly great ones were always few and far between. But the fact that we cannot even appreciate their greatness but instead think that we, Generation TikTok, are too good for them is devastating. And embarrassing.

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Recently, I was struck by the following description of Ulysses S. Grant’s then-future wife, Julia, from Ron Chernow’s epic “Grant.” “She loved the Iliad and the Odyssey and anything that savored of mythology and history. Her literary tastes ran the gamut from Samuel Johnson to Lord Byron to Victor Hugo.” (Chernow, Ron. “The Darling Young Lieutenant.” Grant, Head of Zeus, London, 2018, pp. 31–31.) She was only 18.

How many under-18-year-olds today read Lord Byron for pleasure, let alone some ancient Greek poet? A single page of Johnson would put most of us to sleep. Meanwhile, we watch one billion hours of YouTube every day, and our social media shorts keep getting shorter.

We should be embarrassed by our rapidly declining attention spans (arguably a byproduct of our rapidly undeveloped minds). Once upon a time in American history, “The Federalist Papers” were consumed by everyday citizens of New York. Now, those same works of political genius might as well be written in a foreign language. Even if they were comprehensible, though, no one would read them anyway.

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I do not say these things with intent to insult, only to put things into perspective. And perhaps ourselves in our right place. It is laughable for us, of all people, to think that the geniuses of yesteryear are beneath us. We who increasingly cannot even read have not earned the right to judge.

Grappling with our own simplicity and the intellectual shallowness that surrounds us should make us eager to learn. It should make us eager to glean. We ought to be clamoring for an audience with George Washington, who King George III once called the “greatest man in the world.” How did he manage to maintain such personal dignity, gentlemanly poise, and steadfast courage during war? What enabled him to defy human nature and renounce power and potential kingship? A wise people would be rightly disposed to discover the answers to these questions. Not us. We’re more interested in Kardashian drama. Here today and gone tomorrow would be an appropriate descriptor for our ephemeral tastes.

I’m not saying everyone has to be as addicted to history as I am. But we are suffering for want of substance. And with a wealth of wisdom at our fingertips, who are we to turn away? We each have much to learn and can be tutored by some of the greatest men to ever walk the planet. What an auspicious opportunity! I pray we do not let it pass us by.

Jakob Fay is a staff writer for the Convention of States Project, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance. 

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