warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

David McCullough: American Kids Suck At History

Ryan Faughnder |
June 18, 2011 | 2:15 p.m. PDT

Senior News Editor

Americans have long been lampooned for not knowing enough about U.S. history, but in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough has taken the rebuke to another level. The author of nine books, which include exhaustive biographies of presidents Harry Truman and John Adams, blasted the American education system for failing to adequately teach its students. 

In the article, he rips the American system for producing ill-equipped and poorly trained teachers, the niche categorization of historical topics and “politically correct” textbooks. Here's an excerpt

One problem is personnel. "People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively," Mr. McCullough argues. "Because they're often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing." The great teachers love what they're teaching, he says, and "you can't love something you don't know anymore than you can love someone you don't know."

Another problem is method. "History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. 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."

The recent release of the nation-wide proficiency exam, the National Assessment of Education, support McCullough’s assertion that U.S. students are weak in history. It found that American students do worse at history than any other subject. About 12 percent of high school seniors are proficient, the study found. Startlingly, it found that only 2 percent of 12th graders could identify the significance of Brown vs. the Board of Education, arguably the most important U.S. Supreme Court case in seventy years. Education advocates cited in a New York Times piece were quick to blame the flaws of No Child Left Behind.

To echo Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, however, this assessment is suspect for several reasons. First of all, the study finds that Americans’ best subject is economics, which seems fishy. Secondly, it’s hard to believe that only 2 percent could explain the importance of Brown. Perhaps the questions were flawed or the standards for proficiency in history are too high.

More attention has lately been given to Americans’ insufficient grasp of historical facts, perhaps because of Sarah Palin’s mangled re-imagining of Paul Revere’s ride during her bus tour. Her gaffe, along with her self-defense, inspired Conan O’Brien’s skit, “The Sarah Palin History Channel,” in which the founding fathers carry handguns and R2D2 shoots Hitler at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But if the study on history education or McCullough's critique are in any way accurate, it would seem that the average high schooler might not do much better than Palin.

Reach Ryan Faughnder here. Follow on Twitter here



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.