Americans are now engaging in the opening stages of a great national debate as to who we want to elect as the next President of the United States in 2012. As we go through this process, the recent words of a renowned historian resonate in my mind: “We are raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate.” So said the twice-Pulitzer Prize winning author, David McCullough, as quoted in the June 18, 2011, edition of the Wall Street Journal. “History is a source of strength” he said. “It sets higher standards for all of us.”
McCullough, who wrote the highly acclaimed biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman, is correct. In June, 2011, the U. S. Department of Education released its 2010 National Assessment of Economic Progress. The report found that only 12% of high school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation’s history, and only 2% understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.
As we go through the process of electing our next President, it is obvious that a firm grasp of American History, and the principles upon which our nation was founded, are essential to voters who want to pick the candidate for President who is best suited to preserve the principles of government that made our country great. Furthermore, a basic understanding of the differing forms and philosophies of government that have evolved throughout history in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, based upon the teachings of those who advocated non-democratic, communist, and socialist forms of government, would be very helpful to voters trying to make the right presidential choice. Armed with such knowledge, we could compare the arguments of the candidates and judge how their positions, hopes and dreams for America stack up with the ideals of those political thinkers of yesteryear.
McCullough tells us part of the problem is that too often teachers with a degree in education are assigned to teach history, about which they know little or nothing. The great teachers, according to McCullough, love what they are teaching. “[Y]ou can’t love something you don’t know, anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.”
McCullough is critical of teaching history in categories – “women’s history, African American history, environmental history. . .”, because “. . . many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.” He also says that many history textbooks “are so politically correct as to be comical. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space whereas people of major consequence farther back (such as, say, Thomas Edison) are given very little space or none at all.”
Still, McCullough believes teachers “are the most important people in society. . .” and need more pay and more appreciation from all of us. “It’s not their fault”, he says that our children are ignorant. “It’s our fault. . . . I mean the parents and grandparents of the oncoming generation. We have to talk about history, talk about the books we love, the biographies and histories. . . . We should take our children to historic places. Go to Gettysburg. Go to the Capitol. . . . If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you are never going to forget it as long as you live.”
Hopefully, we will take McCullough’s comments to heart if we want to preserve America, as we know it, for future generations. And as we think about and study the candidates from which we must choose new leaders in upcoming national elections, we should be trying to determine which one of them has the ability and temperament to preserve the principles of government that made America the light of the world and a beacon of hope for people everywhere. Which candidate can inspire us to self-sacrifice in hard times and unite us as Americans, rather than trying to separate us into special interest groups who have tribal loyalties first and foremost? That candidate, at the end of the day and when the dust settles, will get my vote.