Magazine article Humanities

The Danger of Historical Amnesia: A Conversation with David McCullough

Magazine article Humanities

The Danger of Historical Amnesia: A Conversation with David McCullough

Article excerpt


BRUCE COLE: There was a study done not too long ago that surveyed fifty of the elite colleges and universities. The students were asked questions taken from a high school curriculum, and the lack of historical knowledge was really appalling.

This strikes me as something that the tragedy of 9/11 brings home. That is, our country has been attacked. Not only the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, but really the idea of our country, the ideas generated by the founders. How are we going to defend this if we really don't know much about it? It seems to me that this is alarming.

DAVID McCULLOUGH: I thought the results of that survey were alarming, and I said so at the time. I still think so. I can cite what might be called anecdotal evidence at length to support that survey.

I have been talking or lecturing at colleges and universities continuously for twenty-five years or more. From my experience I don't think there's any question whatsoever that the students in our institutions of higher learning have less grasp, less understanding, less knowledge of American history than ever before. I think we are raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large degree, historically illiterate. It's not their fault. And there's no problem about enlisting their interest in history. None.

The problem is the teachers so often have no history in their background. They are working at high school and grade school level with lesson plans. Very often they were education majors and graduated knowing no subject. It's the same, I'm told, in biology or English literature or whatever.

If we think back through our own lives, the subjects that you liked best in school almost certainly were taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teacher you liked best was the teacher who was interested in the subject she taught, who cared about that experiment she was going to do in class that morning, and, in fact, loved showing you that experiment.

There was a noted professor of child psychology at the University of Pittsburgh named Margaret McFarland, whose most influential disciple is Fred Rogers, who has taught more children than any human being who ever lived. And Fred Rogers likes to say that all he's done with his programs is based on the teachings of Margaret McFarland.

What she taught in essence is that attitudes aren't taught, they're caught. If the attitude of the teacher toward the material is positive, enthusiastic, committed, and excited, the students get that. If the teacher is bored, students get that and they get bored, quickly, instinctively. Her admonition to teachers was, "Show them what you love." And, in my view, we have to rethink, revise how we're teaching our teachers.

There is very good work in this field being done by the National Council for History Education. The council conducts summer seminars or clinics primarily for grade school teachers from all over the country in this very spirit. People like Ted Rabb, who is at Princeton, and Ken Jackson, who is at Columbia, are real American heroes. They are the ones that got this going. They're making very good progress.

COLE: Ted Rabb has worked closely with the NEH over the years.

McCULLOUGH: But it's not just something that we should be sad about, or worried about, that these young people don't know any history. We should be angry. They're being cheated. They are being cheated and they are being handicapped, and our way of life could very well be in jeopardy because of this.

Now since September 11, it seems to me that never in our lifetime, except possibly in the early stages of World War II, has it been clearer that we have as a source of strength, a source of direction, a source of inspiration-our story. Yes, this is a dangerous time. Yes, this is a time full of shadows and fear. But we have been through worse before and we have faced more difficult days before. …

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