Everyone’s a critic about the teaching profession. That includes award-winning historian David McCullough, who was profiled on CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday by correspondent Morley Safer. Along with talking about teacher education, he noted that young Americans are “historically illiterate” — and it’s not just the fault of teachers, but parents too. Here’s how part of the interview went, according to a transcript on the “60 Minutes” website:
David McCullough: We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate.
Morley Safer: The teaching of history has become your hobbyhorse, correct?
David McCullough: Yes.
Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.
David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.
Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?
David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.
(Incidentally, McCullough’s son, David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school, delivered a rather unusual commencement speech last June, in which he told graduating seniors at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts that they had been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.” Also, he said repeatedly, “You’re not special.” That’s one outspoken family.)