David McCullough says We’re Historically Illiterate

David McCullough speaking at Empory University. Photo by Brett Weinstein.

David McCullough speaking at Emory University. Photo by Brett Weinstein.

It’s not a new phenomenon.  Some students who excel in math and computer courses flunk or do poorly in history courses. I’ve known a few.

There are good reasons for that. For instance, once a math geek understands the logic of math problem solving,  he/she can figure out answers without doing a lot of homework.  Not so with history.  You have  to read and remember what you have read to pass history tests.

Another is that so many young people don’t believe history has any practical  value.  Who cares about all of those historical dates? Besides, memorizing them is a pain in the neocortex.

Anyone who  reflects on the  fact that  we are our histories has to see the value of studying the subject.  The same is true for our  country. How can you possibly know who you are if you don’t know who  you were?  The moment a thought enters your head it’s history. As some philosophers tell us, there is no present, only past and future.

My favorite historian, bestseller David McCullough, who wrote, among other things, histories of  Presidents John  Adams,  Truman,  and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the  Panama Canal,  is quite concerned that our country has become, in his view, historically illiterate.  That’s what he  told Morley Safer on 60 Minutes.

He says that thought really came to him when a young Western U.S. college student revealed to him that she didn’t know the original 13 colonies were all east of the Alleghenies.  He said he ran into similar experiences at other colleges where he spoke..

He blames not just the  students and their teachers, but all of us.  It is important for parents to encourage their children to learn the  stories of  history and to discuss family  history with them.. As for as history teachers are concerned, they should emphasize the stories of history, not dates.  This is not  a new idea, and I know some very good history professors who have practiced that for a long time, but it doesn’t hurt to remind those who  don’t.

So, tonight when your family  is gathered around the supper table,  direct some of the  conversation toward family and American history.   Of course, you’ll have  to make them stop texting first.

  

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