WASHINGTON – Along with millions of others, my granddaughters Lauren, Nicole and Julia eagerly tore open the boxes containing “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” as soon as they arrived at the airport near the cabin where they were on vacation, and then disappeared into their rooms – barely to reappear for the next 24 hours, while they were devouring the sixth in the best-selling series.
And thereby they proved David McCullough’s point. Late last month, the prolific historian had told a Senate hearing that his examination of school history textbooks had shown a disquieting trend. Over the years, he said, he has noticed that the typeface in those books is growing larger, the illustrations more lavish and the content shrinking. The authors and the teachers using these textbooks “seem to assume that students don’t like to read,” he said, “and then Harry Potter comes along and blows it all away.”
McCullough, whose latest volume, “1776,” is a nonfiction best-seller, was the star witness at a hearing convened by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy to air their concerns about what they called, “U.S. History: Our Worst Subject?”
Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, noted that “according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as ‘the nation’s report card,’ fewer students have just a basic understanding of American history than have a basic understanding of any other subject which we test – including math, science and reading.”
Charles Smith, the executive director of the NAEP governing board, spelled out what that means. In 2001, the last time the American history test was given, 57 percent of the 12th graders scored “below basic” in the subject.
“This means,” he said, “that the majority of 12th graders did not know, for example, that the Monroe Doctrine expressed opposition to European colonization in the Americas at the early part of the 19th century; how government spending during the Great Depression affected the economy; and that the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S. in World War II.”
Kennedy added that the historian emeritus at his brother’s presidential library in Boston had reported that nine states have no standards for teaching American history and 22 others have standards he regarded as weak.
Alexander said, “Our children don’t know American history because they are not being taught it,” adding that the Florida Legislature had recently passed a bill permitting students to graduate from high school without taking a single U.S. history course.
McCullough said at the hearing that the problem starts with the training that teachers receive. “Too many have degrees in education,” he said, “and don’t really know the subject they are teaching.”
“It is impossible to love a subject you don’t know,” he said, “and without a passion for history, the teaching of history becomes a matter of rote learning and drudgery.”
Without personal knowledge of history and enthusiasm for the subject, “you’re much more dependent on the textbook,” and, with rare exceptions – he mentioned the great one-volume American history text by Daniel Boorstin, the late Librarian of Congress – “you read these texts and ask yourself, ‘Are they assigned as punishment?’”
McCullough, who is nothing if not passionate about the subject, added: “Amnesia of society is just as detrimental as amnesia for the individual. We are running a terrible risk. Our very freedom depends on education, and we are failing our children in not providing that education.”
The schools, he said, are also denying them “a source of infinite pleasure,” a pastime that can enrich them throughout their lives. “I think we human beings are naturally interested in history. All our stories begin, ‘Once upon a time … .’ To make history boring is a crime.”
Just as Harry Potter’s extraordinary success demonstrates young people’s hunger for a compelling narrative, other factors suggest ways that history can be made vivid. A Smithsonian Institution official testified that its program last year offered 57,000 teachers an opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with scholars doing primary-source research work – an experience they can then share with their students.
And McCullough gave enthusiastic support to a suggestion from Alexander and Kennedy that the hundreds of National Historical Sites scattered around the country be used for seminars where teachers could visit the places where signal events of the past occurred and fill themselves with the stories the well-informed guides can provide.
“I am very optimistic about what can be done,” McCullough said, if the nation just decides to recapture its history.
David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.