The Wall Street Journal today interviews noted American author and historian David McCullough about Americans’ understanding of history and the pathetic state of our educational process in understanding our culture’s origin and evolution. Mr. McCullough, noted Pulitzer prize winner author of biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams, as well as exceptional books on the Brooklyn Bridge, the fateful year of the American Revolution 1776, young Theodore Roosevelt, and narrator of the epic Ken Burns documentary, the Civil War, laments our atrocious collective ignorance of our past. He points to several trends in Americans’ educational process that are at the root of our historical knowledge deficits.
The first is the trend toward political correctness in our description of history, placing insignificant figures at absurdly equal positions of relative prominence to our giants of history, in order to exaggerate the impact of their views which fit a modern skewed version of events and their consequences. The second is the domination of educating teachers on educational process rather than subjects, so that the average teacher is frequently teaching subjects they no little or nothing about. The third is the teaching of “victim” history, where the effect of historical events on an”oppressed” group results in the loss of perspective and particularly chronological reference in understanding the outcomes. Last, he laments painfully boring, poorly written, and stupefyingly politically correct history textbooks that remove all suspense, mystery, and lessons learned from the study of history. McCullough acknowledges the knowledge deficit has been foisted upon young people by a generation that lost interest in the common story of the American experience and preferred their own version of events.
The loss of history as a cornerstone to modern western educational process is having devastating effects on our national discourse, problem solving, and vetting of our leaders. The election of a leader based on their appearance, smooth delivery, and their social “awareness” rather than their grasp of the elements of this free society that have led it to greatness is a direct outcome of the voter who votes patterns rather than depth of understanding of issues. This has brought us judges who don’t uphold laws that have been crafted from debate and democratic process, but rather on whether the law “fits” their sense of value. It has created politicians that predicate their survival on pandering, rather than their recognition of principle. Most importantly, it diminishes the historical struggle of our past fellow citizens to fight for and put things right, at great risk to themselves, when the outcome was not assured. The old dictum that those who forget history, are condemned to repeat its mistakes, implys the modern generation has learned any history to forget.
Mr. McCullough is among a cherished group of progressive thinkers who realize our historical deficit threatens our unique culture and prosperity. Alas, there are none too few of the ilk of David McCulloughs , and far too many who see history as just another example of western civilization’s arrogance toward other cultures.
The only hope is an old fashioned one. Find a good book on history or civics, and pass it on. Its possible you might convince another that there is something to this wonderful story of ours after all.