HISTORY: by David McCulloughNews Weekly
Knowing history and knowing who we are
, August 5, 2006
America is raising a generation of young people who are by-and-large historically illiterate, warns Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian David McCullough.Australia, of course, suffers an identical problem. News Weekly reproduces below an extract from an important talk David McCullough delivered last year, in which he proposed ways to inspire a greater love of history among the young.First, he says, we have to do a far better job of teaching our teachers. Second, we have to replace dreary, politically-correct textbooks, with more stimulating historical narratives. Third - and probably most important - the teaching of history should begin at home.
President Harry Truman, once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know. Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th-century political philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples. An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.
The task of teaching and writing history is infinitely complex and infinitely seductive and rewarding. And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be portrayed - needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader - is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.
History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. These all sound self-evident. But they're not self-evident - particularly to a young person trying to understand life.
Nor was there ever anything like the past. Nobody lived in the past, if you stop to think about it. Jefferson, Adams, Washington - they didn't walk around saying, "Isn't this fascinating, living in the past?" They lived in the present just as we do. The difference was it was their present, not ours. And just as we don't know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn't either. It's very easy to stand on the mountaintop as an historian or biographer and find fault with people for why they did this or didn't do that, because we're not involved in it, we're not inside it, we're not confronting what we don't know - as everyone who preceded us always was.
Nor is there any such creature as a self-made man or woman. We love that expression, we Americans. But every one who's ever lived has been affected, changed, shaped, helped, hindered by other people.Parents and teachers
We all know, in our own lives, who those people are who've opened a window, given us an idea, given us encouragement, given us a sense of direction, self-approval, self-worth, or who have straightened us out when we were on the wrong path. Most often they have been parents. Almost as often they have been teachers.
Stop and think about those teachers who changed your life, maybe with one sentence, maybe with one lecture, maybe by just taking an interest in your struggle. Family, teachers, friends, rivals, competitors - they've all shaped us.
And so too have people we've never met, never known, because they lived long before us. They have shaped us too - the people who composed the symphonies that move us, the painters, the poets, those who have written the great literature in our language.
We walk around everyday, everyone of us, quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope. We don't know it, but we are, all the time. We think this is our way of speaking. It isn't our way of speaking - it's what we have been given.
The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted - as we should never
take for granted - are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing.
Keep in mind that when we were founded by those people in the late 18th century, none of them had had any prior experience in either revolutions or nation-making. They were, as we would say, winging it. And they were idealistic and they were young.
We see their faces in the old paintings done later in their lives or looking at us from the money in our wallets, and we see the awkward teeth and the powdered hair, and we think of them as elder statesmen.
But George Washington, when he took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, was 43 years old, and he was the oldest of them. Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. John Adams was 40. Benjamin Rush - one of the most interesting of them all and one of the founders of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia - was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration.
They were young people. They were feeling their way, improvising, trying to do what would work. They had no money, no navy, no real army. There wasn't a bank in the entire country. There wasn't but one bridge between New York and Boston. It was a little country of 2,500,000 people, 500,000 of whom were held in slavery, a little fringe of settlement along the east coast.
What a story. What a noble beginning. And think of this: almost no nations in the world know when they were born. We know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it.
We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate. And it's not their fault. There have been innumerable studies, and there's no denying it.
I've experienced it myself again and again. I had a young woman come up to me after a talk one morning at the University of Missouri to tell me that she was glad she came to hear me speak, and I said I was pleased she had shown up. She said, "Yes, I'm very pleased, because until now I never understood that all of the 13 colonies - the original 13 colonies - were on the east coast." Now you hear that and you think: What in the world have we done? How could this young lady, this wonderful young American, become a student at a fine university and not know that?
We have to do several things. First of all we have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we're to know who we are and where we're headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears - and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents - did for us, or we're not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away.
If you don't care about it - if you've inherited some great work of art that is worth a fortune and you don't know that it's worth a fortune, you don't even know that it's a great work of art and you're not interested in it - you're going to lose it.Teaching the teachers
We have to do a far better job of teaching our teachers. We have too many teachers who are graduating with degrees in education. They go to schools of education or they major in education, and they graduate knowing something called education, but they don't know a subject.
Knowing a subject is important because you want to know what you're talking about when you're teaching. But beyond that, you can't love what you don't know. And the great teachers - the teachers who influence you, who change your lives - almost always, I'm sure, are the teachers that love what they are teaching. It is that wonderful teacher who says, "Come over here and look in this microscope, you're really going to get a kick out of this."
If the teacher has an attitude of enthusiasm for the subject, the student catches that whether the student is in second grade or is in graduate school. Also if the teachers know what they are teaching, they are much less dependent on textbooks. And I don't know when the last time you picked up a textbook in American history might have been. Most of them, it appears to me, have been published in order to kill any interest that anyone might have in history.
The textbooks are dreary, they're done by committee, they're often hilariously politically correct and they're not doing any good. Students should not have to read anything that we, you and I, wouldn't want to read ourselves.
History isn't just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it's going to make us a better citizen - it will
make us a better citizen - or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will. It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.
The teaching of history, the emphasis on the importance of history, the enjoyment of history, should begin at home. We who are parents or grandparents should be taking our children to historic sites. We should be talking about those books in biography or history that we have particularly enjoyed, or that character or those characters in history that have meant something to us. We should be talking about what it was like when we were growing up in the olden days.Telling stories
There's no secret to teaching history or to making history interesting. Barbara Tuchman said it in two words, "Tell stories." That's what history is: a story. And what's a story? E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition to it: If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events. If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story. That's human. That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story.
I want to read to you, in conclusion, a letter that John Quincy Adams received from his mother. Little John Adams was taken to Europe by his father when his father sailed out of Massachusetts in the midst of winter, in the midst of war, to serve our country in France.
Nobody went to sea in the wintertime, on the North Atlantic, if it could possibly be avoided. And nobody did it trying to cut through the British barricade outside of Boston Harbor because the British ships were sitting out there waiting to capture somebody like John Adams and take him to London and to the Tower, where he would have been hanged as a traitor. But they sent this little 10-year-old boy with his father, risking his life, his mother knowing that she wouldn't see him for months, maybe years at best.
Well, it was a horrendous voyage. Everything that could have happened to go wrong, went wrong. And when the little boy came back, he said he didn't ever want to go across the Atlantic again as long as he lived. And then his father was called back, and his mother said you're going back. And here is what she wrote to him.
Now, keep in mind that this is being written to a little kid and listen to how different it is from how we talk to our children in our time. She's talking as if to a grown-up. She's talking to someone whom they want to bring along quickly because there's work to do and survival is essential:
"These are the times in which genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.
"When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."
Now, there are several interesting things going on in that letter. For all the times that she mentions the mind, in the last sentence she says, "When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart
, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman." In other words, the mind itself isn't enough. You have to have the heart.
Well, of course he went and the history of our country is different because of it. John Quincy Adams, in my view, was the most superbly educated and maybe the most brilliant human being who ever occupied the executive office. He was, in my view, the greatest Secretary of State we've ever had. He wrote the Monroe Doctrine, among other things. And he was a wonderful human being and a great writer.
- Yale University historian David McCullough has twice received the Pulitzer Prize and twice the National Book Award, as well as the Francis Parkman Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. The above article is an abridged transcript of remarks he delivered on February 15, 2005, in Phoenix, Arizona, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar. Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS , the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, www.hillsdale.edu.