October 08, 2007

"Education truly begins at home"

A couple of months ago my father told me about the advance copy he had recently received of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough's new illustrated edition of 1776, which he's saving for us and described as "an enormous book stuffed with removable facsimiles of various documents".

So I was interested to read The Wall Street Journal's Author Q&A interview this past weekend with Mr. McCullough. Especially when interviewer Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg asked the noted historian [emphases mine],
What do you think is the best way to get young people interested in history?

Mr. McCullough: Barbara Tuchman was once asked about this problem. She said there's no trick to interesting young people in history. All you have to do is tell stories. History shouldn't be taught as a memorization of dates or quotations, or as a huge survey. It is most appealing to anyone, but particularly the young, when you take a defined subject and bring it to life by telling the story. It's what happened to whom and why, and the fact that these were human beings just like you.

It's a wonder to me how many volumes of history -- and even some biographies -- don't tell you what people looked like, or what they sounded like. That's what everybody wants. It's in our human nature. All the great old fabled stores began…once upon a time, long, long ago, and immediately we're interested. The two most popular movies are about history: "Gone with the Wind," and "Titanic."

WSJ.com: What's the major issue with teaching history?

Mr. McCullough: The problem with education today, whether it's in history or literature or science, is us. Education truly begins at home. We've got to bring back talk about the story, about our country, who we are, why we have the blessings we enjoy and what struggles were part of that story. We also need to discuss what mistakes were made, and what noble achievements were accomplished.

We're raising generations who are historically illiterate. It's appalling. And it's our fault. We've got to do a better job of educating our teachers and not just raise their salaries. We have to raise the appreciation level of their work throughout our entire society.

There was a marvelous specialist in education in England at the turn of the century, Charlotte Mason, who wrote about how we learn. She said that history ought to be taught in a way that the student begins to understand that history is an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas. How different that is from a lot of boring dates and names and battles. Remove the music, poetry and humor from history and you squeeze out everything that touches the soul.

WSJ.com: How does that relate to your new book?

Mr. McCullough: There is nothing like the experience of holding originals in your own hands. It's a tactile connection to a vanished time and people. I think the closest thing to it is if you are in the real room where something of consequence happened, you feel it. And I think that this collection comes as close to giving one that sense as anything could.

I remember as a kid going to Williamsburg, Va., and in a shop I got a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence. That was one of the best things I had, and I hope a lot of young people will have that feeling with this book. ...

WSJ.com: What's next?

Mr. McCullough: I'm working on a book about Americans in Paris. It will cover the 19th and 20th centuries. It will be about writers and painters, but also about physicians, sculptors and composers, from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. to Mary Cassatt to George Gershwin to Edith Wharton. It's about creative ambition and the American desire to venture forth where others haven't gone. It's also about American masterpieces that we take to be so representative of us but only happened because of the experiences of those who went to Paris. I'm learning so much. It's the kick of learning that spurs you on.
Read the entire interview here.

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