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Don’t Know Much About History: David McCullough on “historical illiteracy”


Here is a sequence of brief excerpts from an interview of David McCullough by Brian Bolduc, featured in The Wall Street Journal (June 18, 2011). To read the complete interview, please click here.

Illustration credit: Ken Falin

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The popular historian David McCullough says textbooks have become “so politically correct as to be comic.” Meanwhile, the likes of Thomas Edison get little attention.

'We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, "I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don't know." Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. "It's shocking."

He's right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.

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"History is a source of strength," he says. "It sets higher standards for all of us." But helping to ensure that the next generation measures up, he says, will be a daunting task.

One problem is personnel. "People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively," Mr. McCullough argues. "Because they're often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing." The great teachers love what they're teaching, he says, and "you can't love something you don't know anymore than you can love someone you don't know."

Another problem is method. "History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."

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Mr. McCullough learned to write from a series of great teachers, most notably Thornton Wilder, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and novelist who was also a resident scholar at Yale, where Mr. McCullough graduated in 1951. To this day, he remembers Wilder's teaching that a good writer preserves "an air of freedom" in his prose, so that the reader won't know how a story will end—even if he's reading a history book.

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Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. "Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash," he says. "They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you're never going to forget it as long as you live."

"We're too concentrated on having our children learn the answers," he summarizes. "I would teach them how to ask questions—because that's how you learn."

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

 

Mr. Bolduc is a fellow at the National Review Institute.

 

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