"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."When it comes to writing history so that the book's readers become excited about the material, this I agree with particularly:
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.
Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at "a very good university in the Midwest." She thanked him for coming and admitted, "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast." Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough's snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. "I thought, 'What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'"
"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."I immediately wondered if we could employ this technique in the teaching of the August course:
"And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with "the lab technique." In other words, "give the student a problem to work on."Why have the progressives dropped history, the ownership of which is now a primary weapon on political battlegrounds? Is it because of what McCullough said here:
"If I were teaching a class," he says, "I would tell my students, 'I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever." He adds, "I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military." [ By the way, Adam Goodheart and many others at various liberal arts colleges do this, by the way, to very good effect, as it immediately show history is personal and local.]
What about textbooks? "I'd take one of those textbooks. I'd clip off all the numbers on the pages. I'd pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I'd put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, 'Put it back in order and tell me what's missing.'" You'd know that book inside and out.
"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."
"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."Radical religious groups and radical, repressive politicos have known this for decades and doing it too, in home schooling, church schools and the rest. As observed long ago -- the radical right pasionately studies and presents history, while the liberal and progressive have ignored it all this time.
Well, that isn't the case in our books! Quite the other, or as one miffed woman said after a reading from The American Slave Coast: "Must you quote Thomas Jefferson writing about slaves like that!"