This interview with David McCullough encapsulates everything that’s silly and contradictory about the Barnes and Noble-style creative nonfiction writer’s complaints that professional historians are ruining history. First of all, the evidence of course is that today’s young people don’t know nothing ’bout history, with an obligatory nod to that silly study that reminds us of this fact, year after year, as though Americans of yore were some kind of social studies savants and New Left historians are to blame:
‘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.
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?’”
My question is, how can David McCullough play the role of a celebrated “historian” without considering that the young lady in question 20 years ago might have been thinking about the colonial settlements called New France, Louisiana, Kahokia, Missouri, Santa Fe, and the California missions, none of which are on “the East Coast?” At a “very good university in the Midwest,” chances are that the languages spoken locally 300 and 400 years ago were Algonquian and French, not English.
Next, we have the usual (and usually mutually contradictory claims) of the successful amateur who has no idea what’s actually been happening in American universities and among professional historians for at least 25 years:
- “History is a source of strength,” he says. “It sets higher standards for all of us.” Because everyone in the past was a paragon of virtue, hard work, and patriotic sacrifice? (Most professional historians are uncomfortable with uncritical hero-worship, and moreover, we’re bored writing books without villains and/or conflict.)
- “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.” This hasn’t been the standard in my state for at least the decade that I’ve been teaching here, and I don’t even know how long before that. (Twenty years? Those of you who know should fill me in.) The only people who major in education only are the K-6 teachers, who must necessarily be generalists. History teachers at the junior high and high school level these days were History majors who essentially double-majored in History and social studies teaching.
- “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.” And yet, at the same time, “[H]istory ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military,” and “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.’” Yeah–that’s the way to cure the “problems” with chronology and coverage.
- Textbooks are “‘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.’” Fortunately none of that “political correctness” has influenced David McCullough at all to think that history should be “more than just politics and the military.” Whew! And, by the way: since when does Thomas Edison count as someone who’s “farther back” in U.S. history? His entire adult life was lived after the Civil War and he died in the twentieth century!
- Of course, it’s professional historians who write articles and books for free who are to blame for this state of affairs. “‘Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.’ Yet he also adds quickly, ‘Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.’”
- Professional historians aren’t just bad writers, we’ve awful teachers who never think, talk, or write about teaching history effectively, either: “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. 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.’” Wow–what brilliant ideas! Thanks, guy-who-gives-only-highly-compensated-public-lectures-to-college-students! Those of us who do this all year ’round for a living never would have come up with those insights on our own.
Just go read the whole thing–if you’re up for a laugh this morning. (I’m sure some of you non-U.S. historians will have plenty to say about McCullough’s oddly narrow vision of history and “people of major consequence farther back,” all the way to the middle of the nineteenth century!) I’ve said my piece–now it’s your turn, friends!
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