The de-emphasis of history education
Pulitzer-Prize winning author David McCullough is assailing the state of history literacy in our country.
Those who believe America is facing its darkest and most dangerous time since Sept. 11 are only showing their lack of knowledge of history, according to acclaimed historical writer David McCullough.
"There was no simpler time," he told a sold-out audience at Layton High School as part of Davis County's Davis Reads program. "It's a form of our present-day hubris."
McCullough, who has won two Pulitzer prizes and has written books about the Revolutionary War and influential presidents such as John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, encouraged people to instill in their children and grandchildren a sense of history.
"History is the exploration of character," he said. "We're not doing a good job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren for the past 25 years, and we've got to do something about it."
While teachers are the "most important people in our society," he said families can not let the teaching burden fall solely on them.
"The problem is us. We have to take part," he said.
He worries that a lack of historical knowledge will result in poor leaders for the future, as the great leaders of the past steeped themselves in history.
"History affected the idea of who they were and what was expected of them," he said. "We need to educate people to be leaders or we won't have the quality of leaders we once had."
In his many campus visits, McCullough has become increasingly disconcerted with the lack of historical knowledge students have, from not knowing George Washington was commander of the Continental Army to not realizing the 13 original colonies were all on the East Coast. "Anyone who graduates without history courses is not educated, and that should change."
Not only does history mold character, he said, but it enriches lives.
"Think what they're missing when they don't read history, the enlargement of the experience of being alive," he said. "The whole experience of human kind is there for us in letters and books."
I just love him.
History education is endangered in my own children's classrooms. I notice all kinds of emphasis on math content and test-taking strategies. I still don't see a lot of scope and sequence in their math instruction, but there are certainly untold hours spent on the subject. We could talk about that all day, but let's not stray from the point.
But history is often ignored. My elementary aged children have spent precious little time on learning about history or geography or economics-- in fact, my first-grader has not had ANY assignments brought home that deal with social studies, while my fourth-grader has covered one unit on state history, and that is all. Meanwhile, hours each day are devoted to test-taking skills as those high-stakes test loom in just a few days' time. Of course, schools can only do so much-- but it would help if they actually did something. The claim is often made, "What good is it to teach a kid history if he can't read?" But I insist that history not only can help interest kids in reading, but really, that it shouldn't be an either/or proposition. One doesn't see computer instruction sacrificed on the altar of NCLB, but the humanities are already hog-tied and facing the knife in some school districts.
History education is citizenship education. It is greatly troubling that it is being sacrificed, particularly in this time when we talk about a war on terrorism, for just one instance, but our students can have no idea who the terrorists are or where they came from or why they target western countries such as the United States. What is the record of the United States when it comes to supporting democracy in the Middle East? What does democracy mean? Where did it originate? How role has Iran played in world history, both in the distant and the more recent past? What caues impel the growth of terrorism? What military tactics do terrorists use? How has modern technology made fighting terrorism both more difficult and easier?
Or, closer to home: Who was the Baron de Montesquieu, and what impact did his theories have upon the structure of the US government? What does "checks and balances" mean? What are civil liberties? Why is there tension between liberty and security? What is the title of the head of the Department of Justice? What is executive privilege? What is the history of executive privilege? When was the Department of Veteran's Affairs created? What countries in the world have the most untapped reserves of petroleum?
These are all questions that history education should, indeed MUST to create an informed and involved citizenry which can hold government accountable by demanding that it be "of the people, by the people, and for the people." That promise is meaningless if the people are mired in ignorance.
There is nothing nobler, nor more crucial in today's world.