Tuesday, 28 June 2011

David McCullough and History Education in the United States

Eleesha Tucker

 "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.” David McCullough recently recalled this student epiphany for Wall Street Journal reporter Brian Bolduc.

This realization came from a student at a prestigious university and was disconcerting to Mr. McCullough, one of the most read and revered historians of our generation. He relayed it to express his deep concern with the state of historical knowledge among America’s youth. If this obviously bright student missed such elementary information, it has to be a deficit in instruction, he concludes. He identifies what he sees as leading culprits, namely categorical instruction instead of chronological, teachers teaching out of subject, and poorly written textbooks.

Mr. McCullough is right in that these are issues preventing schools' success in historical instruction, but if these were remedied, it would still leave the educational landscape of his favored field looking dry.

There has to be a complete paradigm shift in how history is taught. 

Instead of requiring students to memorize dates and events, teachers should equip students to think critically. As students analyze historical evidence, such the text of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, or Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birmingham Jail letter, they can make inferences to the author’s motivations and imagine the historical context. They can then appreciate the complexity of time and place and understand that the outcomes of past events were not inevitable. When students engage in this kind of historical inquiry, they can better identify cause and effect relationships and identify recurring themes and patterns over time. Historical study provides this perspective that cannot otherwise be determined in the moment.  Drawing lessons from the past is what makes the study of history relevant for the present and useful for  future decision making. Equipped with these critical thinking skills, students increase in their competency and mastery of important historical knowledge. 

If the student aforementioned knew how to ask questions, the right questions, during her history classes, she likely would have connected the dots about the geographical location of the first colonies in America.

This approach, coupled with an engaging lecturer to provide background of historical materials, would revolutionize classrooms across the nation. The benefits would not only be limited to the history classroom, but as students sharpen critical thinking skills, they are better prepared for college and meaningful employment.

Further, the Internet provides this digital generation with unprecedented access to information. More than ever, they can easily research historical facts, but now they need the skills to discern their validity, relevancy and usability. The U.S. Department of Education funded an Internet literacy study of high school students where results were as alarming as Mr. McCullough’s tale. Researchers found that students believed information they found on the Internet, even after they were informed it was fabricated. It seems in their minds, if it is online, it is authoritative. Lead researcher, Donald Leu of the University of Connecticut, said that students “simply have very little in the way of critical evaluation skills. They may tell you they don’t believe everything they read on the Internet, but they do.” As students learn to ask questions, the right questions, they can actively discern reality from fiction.

Lastly, America is an ongoing experiment. Can men and women govern themselves? Our form of government only continues with a citizenry informed of the system’s operations and engaged in its activities. Knowledge of the Founding and decisions made within the Constitution's framework is key to America's vitality. Critical thinking skills are necessary to drive it prudently forward.  

The future of America relies on improving its historical education.

ConSource to host David McCullough in Washington, D.C. at the National Archives

The Constitutional Sources Project, which has created ConSource.org,  is pleased to host David McCullough at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 2011. Mr. McCullough is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. He will teach a diverse group of teachers, middle and high school students, and community leaders about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. His presentation will illuminate the dynamic, collaborative process, which enabled the young American nation to escape the historical dangers of revolution by establishing a lasting Constitution founded on the rule of law. A recording of his presentation will be available through Channel One Connection—a network of 400,000 teachers and 6 million students nationwide—providing an outstanding  resource for teachers to meet the federal requirements to teach the Constitution on September 16.

Interested in accessing his address? Contact Eleesha Tucker, Director of Education and Volunteers, at eleesha.tucker@ConSource.org

1 comment:

  1. You make some great points about the importance of critical thinking skills in learning history, or anything else. First and foremost, I think teachers have to make history interesting ... it's a story, if they'd tell it that way, chronologically, and keep in the drama and the personalities and the little sidebar adeventures of the main characters, kids might be interested enough to pay attention through an entire lesson. Until we get their attention, they'll never learn anything.