“Historically Illiterate” – McCullough on teaching history

Earlier this week, 60-Minutes aired the second part of a profile of historian David McCullough.  I suspect most readers are familiar with his work, although it is perhaps scoped more to the general audience as opposed to the “hard core” Civil War readers out there.  Adding more to his “pop historian” status, he has narrated dozens of documentaries.  As the joke says, Americans would sit and listen to McCullough narrate a documentary on a root canal.

At any rate, he offered a scathing review of the American educational system during that profile:

David McCullough: We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.

Morley Safer: The teaching of history has become your hobbyhorse, correct?

David McCullough: Yes.

Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.

David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?

David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.

There’s a lot to chew on there.