Thanks to regular commenter, R.O.B., for bringing this heartening story from David Broder to my attention today. Broder recounts the testimony of David McCullough in hearings with Senators Lamar Alexander and Ted Kennedy (!) about the prospects for improving the teaching of American history in our schools. McCullough’s main point closely dovetails the example of his own work. History should be narrative. It should be written in a way that is engaging and interesting because--after all--history is engaging and interesting. It is only the studied ignorance of the last several academic generations that has served to make it boring. McCullough pointed to the emergence of the Harry Potter phenomenon as evidence that students are desirous of and willing to digest lengthy and interesting reading; and he decried the utter lack of depth and seriousness in most of the commonly used American history textbooks. These books are full of large type, glossy pictures and inane prose.
What can we do about this problem? I don’t know that much about the regulations governing teachers in the classrooms these days, but I do know--from talking with teachers who are serious about history and about teaching--that they often feel constrained by time constraints and state standards. Perhaps teachers need to be given more leeway to engage their classes in lengthy reading and discussion of things as they strike their interest. I know teachers have much to cover in a year--and it’s nearly impossible to do it all. So my question is: why is that the requirement? Why not cover a few things really well and forget about being comprehensive? Teachers should be treated like professionals and be given more freedom to make their subjects come alive for students. This won’t prevent bad or ideological teachers from doing mischief . . . but if school boards had more discretion in firing too, that shouldn’t be as insurmountable a problem as the current malaise in history education seems to be.