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The Danger of Historical Amnesia

A Conversation with Writer David McCullough

HUMANITIES, July/August 2002 | Volume 23, Number 4

In the last issue, NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke with historian and writer David McCullough about the importance of history. In this issue, the two talk about how America's schools have failed and why. McCullough is the author of eight books, among them two Pulitzer Prize winners, Truman and John Adams.

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. We have shown courage and determination, and skillful and inventive and courageous and committed responses to crisis before. We should draw on our story, we should draw on our history as we’ve never drawn before.

Cole: Our strength comes from our story.

McCullough: Absolutely. If we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know how we became what we are, we’re going to start suffering from all the obvious detrimental effects of amnesia.

Cole: Collective amnesia.

McCullough: Furthermore, we face an enemy who believes in enforced ignorance. And it’s all that we stand for . . . is the open mind--

Cole: Right. Tolerance.

McCullough::--the generous spirit, the ideal of tolerance, freedom, education, opportunity. All that is in the paragraph that John Adams included in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which is the oldest written constitution still in use in the world today. It predates our national constitution by ten years.

Listen to this. “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties”--you have to have wisdom and knowledge as well as virtue to preserve your rights and liberties--“and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people”--in other words, everybody--“it shall be the duty”--the duty--“of legislators and magistrates in all future periods of this commonwealth to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them”--public schools, grammar schools, and so forth.

Then he goes on to say what he means by education. And what Adams means by education clearly is everything. No boundaries. It’s all interesting. It’s all important. “To encourage . . . for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings, sincerity, good humor”--there will be good humor--“and all social affections”--

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough::--“and generous sentiments among the people.”

There had never been any such statement in any proclamation or constitution ever in the history of the world. And there it is. This was radical in its day. It’s saying not just that it would be a good idea to educate people, it’s saying it’s the duty of the government. We “cherish” these interests, that the good society, the good life, is the life of the mind, and the life of the mind is the life of the spirit.

The pursuit of happiness. What did they mean by “the pursuit of happiness”? They did not mean material wealth. They did not mean ease, luxury.

Cole: Happiness in our sense.

McCullough: As near as I can tell, they meant the life of the mind and the life of the spirit.

Adams wrote a letter to his boy, John Quincy, concerned that the boy not just be studying Greek and Latin, but that he be reading the great works in his own mother tongue, and particularly the English poets. He was telling him his happiness mattered.

So what does he mean by “happiness”? He says, “Read somewhat in the English poets every day. You will find them elegant, entertaining and constructive companions through your whole life.” In other words, education is the whole life.

Then he says, “In all the disquisitions you have heard concerning the happiness of life, has it ever been recommended to you to read poetry?” That’s when he says this famous, wonderful line, “You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: Even more to the point, I guess, is a very well-known paragraph, but still it deserves being repeated, it seems to me, at any chance. I might have put it--it’s where he says, “I must study politics and war, so that my”--

Cole: Oh, that is wonderful. "So the next generation"--

McCullough: --"can study art, music"--

Cole: Right, right. That's one of my favorites.

McCullough: Absolutely right. At the very end of Adams’s life, Adams’s doctor wrote a letter to John Quincy to say, “I’ve just been to see him. But as weak as was his material frame, his mind was still enthroned.”

Cole: That's wonderful.

McCullough: Yes. I did not study Latin. I did not take Latin. It’s one of the regrets of my life. But I’m absolutely convinced, the more I understand these eighteenth-century people, that it was that grounding in Greek and Latin that gave them their sense of the classic virtues: the classic ideals of honor, virtue, the good society, and their historic examples of what they could try to live up to.

Cole: Yes. We have a new initiative at the NEH called “We the People,” which is a response to 9/11. It is aimed at getting people in all walks of life thinking about, through our various projects and through our institutions, what it means to be an American--our liberties, all those things we were attacked for. After 9/11, it seems to me that this is something essential. That’s why it is so alarming that you have this kind of historical amnesia.

McCullough: Well, there are two interesting curves, it seems to me--and I don’t have any data on it. But there is a notable rise in popular interest in history, as measured by the success, for example, of The History Channel on television. Nobody thought that would work. There are other measures: the long run that The American Experience has had on PBS, the success of the presidential series that C-SPAN ran, the reading audience for books like mine and Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and others. The level of knowledge of those we’re educating seems on the decline while the general interest seems to be on the rise.

Cole: That's the paradox. I think of the The History Channel and The American Experience as a kind of public university.

McCullough: Maybe because so many people didn’t learn these things in college, they’re curious to find out. But we need to get them young. Little children can learn anything. I have met with fifth-grade and sixth-grade classes. I’ve worked with them. I know how far they can go, just as they can learn a foreign language. The mind is so absorbent then. There ought to be a real program to educate teachers who want to teach grade school children about history. One of the interesting measures of the rise in interest in history is the percentage of the people who travel in this country who are going to a specific place because of its historic interest.

Of the people who come to tour Virginia, something like eighty percent of them come because of the history. In my own state of Massachusetts, they come for the history. They bring their children. They come to Washington, D.C., and they come to Williamsburg. The school trip is of the utmost importance. It ought to be encouraged in every possible way, throughout the country.

Another good classroom program has the children act a part. My granddaughter’s fifth-grade class, two sections of the class, are doing the American presidents. Each child is a president and/or a first lady. Their job is to learn all about that president. Then, at the end of the month there’s a big celebration party for these forty children and their parents. They all come as their president or their first lady, dressed up as that person.

Cole: Are you going to be there?

McCullough: Absolutely. I have met with them. I was astounded by how much they know. The child who plays Dolley Madison or James K. Polk-- they’re never going to forget that. I wish that publishers would start producing little plays that could be done with twenty or thirty children somehow involved, or even ten children. If you’re going to play the part of an historic figure in a play, in school, you’re never going to forget that. That’s the time to catch them. I really think if the bug is caught then, it stays with you for life.

I’m absolutely positive it’s in our human nature to want to know about the past. The two most popular movies of all time, while not historically accurate, are about core historic events: Gone With the Wind and Titanic. There is a human longing to go back to other times. We all know how when we were children we asked our parents, “What was it like when you were a kid?” If you have children, you know that they love to hear about that.

I think it probably has something to do with our survival as a species. For nine-tenths of the time that human beings have been on earth, knowledge that was essential to survival was transmitted from one generation to the next by the vehicle of story.

My strong feeling is that we must learn more about how we learn. How do we really learn something so that we don’t forget it? I’m convinced that we learn by struggling to find the solution to a problem on our own--with some guidance, but doing, getting in and getting our hands dirty and working it.

Cole: So we really understand it. When we do it that way, we really know it. It's not superimposed.

McCullough: If you had to take that typewriter or that automobile engine apart and spend a year to put it back together, you'd never forget it.

Cole: That's right.

McCullough: I opened a closet in the attic of the old library at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute one beautiful fall afternoon, and there were all the records and the private correspondence and the scrapbooks and the photographs and the drawings and so forth of the Brooklyn Bridge, just stashed in that closet, no catalog, no index--nobody really knew what all was there--bundles of letters tied up with shoestrings the way it had been when the Roebling family turned it over.

I spent three years trying to untangle all that, trying to understand it, and then to make it clear. It’s been thirty years, and I’m sure I could sit down now and take a test and do extremely well on that subject because I’ll never ever forget it.

Cole: You put that engine together.

McCullough: And we've all crammed for exams, maybe did very well on the exams, and three months later or three weeks later--

Cole: It's gone.

McCullough: --it’s gone. So I think we have got to bring the lab technique to the teaching of the humanities to a far greater degree than we have. There are lots of ways that can be done. And they’re exciting and they’re fun.

I am adamant on the subject that we must not cut back on funding of the teaching of the arts in the schools: music, painting, theater, dance, all of it. The great thing about the arts is that the only way you learn how to do it is by doing it. If a child learns nothing but that as a guide to life, that’s invaluable. You can’t learn to play the piano without playing the piano, you can’t learn to write without writing, and, in many ways, you can’t learn to think without thinking. Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.

Cole: That's right. I don't think you know what you know until you write it.

McCullough: Exactly. We all know the old expression, “I’ll work my thoughts out on paper.” That’s exactly right. There’s something about the pen that focuses the brain in a way that nothing else does. That is why we must have more writing in the schools, more writing in all subjects, not just in English classes. And the teacher who teaches history should be grading the writing, too.

Lots of schools do this and do it very well, but, generally speaking, we’ve got to have these programs revised so that there’s more stress on writing. That stress on the arts, particularly in public grade schools in the cities, is essential. The talent, including the talent for history--and I do think there are people who just have a talent for it, the way you have a talent for public speaking or music or whatever--it shouldn’t be allowed to lie dormant. It should be brought alive.

Cole: Terrific. Thank you very much.

McCullough: I’ve enjoyed it.