I hesitate to argue with David McCullough this early in the morning, but he started it. On 60 Minutes this past Sunday he made some comments that I disagreed with and was fully prepared to overlook…until they started appearing as quotes on FB and people were flocking to his side like migrating lemmings.
So in defense of teachers everywhere I have to say that Mr. McCullough is right and so very wrong.
First of all let’s talk about his statement that we are historically illiterate. True. But I would also make the claim that Mr. McCullough is bound to be historically illiterate in some area. I don’t think it is possible to be otherwise. I hope he does not claim to have all of the world’s history from creation to present tucked into that little brain of his, marvelous though it may be. And what would he have us learn more about -American history, political history, state history, world history, Native American history, European history, Biblical history, art history…..? He says that if people would return to the dinner table with their children they could “discuss history” and pass it on. Would that be community history, family history? War stories? Totally biased and undocumented political history? My grandmother’s favorite dinner discussion was the depression. Would that suffice for a history lesson? Our neighbor was in a concentration camp. Those were depressing stories that gave me nightmares!
I grew up in California so I was taught American history, geography, and California history. When I moved to Oklahoma in high school I had to also take a class in Oklahoma history and learn about Native Americans. I doubt that many of my classmates knew much about California history, nor did our counterparts in Vermont or Virginia! There is a limit to what can be taught to any single group at any particular time in their education. We cannot all be “historians”. I know a lot of basic history, but as for names and facts, many of those are lost to me. Nor can I now recall to you the many, many dates we were required to learn!!
Mr. McCullough also speaks of those with a “passion” for what they know. My eighth grade social studies teacher had a passion for the Civil War; so much so that we learned far more about those years and battles than necessary, and to the exclusion of other things that were included in the curriculum of other schools!
Yes, our students should have an understanding of the “basics” of American history that we all agree are culturally beneficial to well-rounded citizens. With the recent implementation of Common Core adopted by 48 states perhaps we will achieve that, but there will always be a certain number of children who do not listen to, care about, or understand what is taught in class. That is a fact of life we all need to quit ignoring.
Mr. McCullough also thinks that teachers should major in a subject, not education.
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.
I had a professor like that in college! He loved his subject- science! He could expound on biology for hours. Only problem seemed to be that he HATED students. He electrified the morning all right! I nearly worried myself into an ulcer over his class. He locked his door at 8am sharp and didn’t care if anyone had a reason to be late. NO ONE was allowed to interfere with his scheduled lecture. Be there on time or go home! He talked and talked and talked and if you didn’t “get it”, well too bad for you.
I also had a professor who loved people. She taught sociology to people. And she was so passionate about her students that she had more students in her class each day than were actually registered. Young people often sat on the floor in the aisles to listen to her speak. Her lectures led to warnings from the fire marshal!
On a more personal note, my “Civil War expert” eighth grade social studies teacher moved in the spring and was replaced by a man who recognized and encouraged my ability to write. While my English teacher continued to scold me about my sentence structures and make me diagram them ad nauseam, he arranged for me to attend an “author’s tea” at the library and meet a real writer. That changed my life! It did not matter what he had been trained to teach, what mattered to him was what I needed to know!
Perhaps Mr. McCullough does not understand that as an elementary teacher my education requires a basic knowledge of a variety of subjects including how to teach children. I must be ready to teach them everything from how to tie their shoes to how to construct a Venn diagram. Perhaps Mr. McCullough does not understand that many of the children in our classrooms are tired, hungry, abused, neglected, discouraged, worried, disabled, homeless, and disturbed. A person who is simply passionate about a subject cannot hope to reach and teach every student. An elementary teacher has to be passionate about those children!
And Mr. McCullough probably doesn’t realize that as teachers we don’t get to decide what to teach our students. The state, the district, the school board, and the administration are all ahead of us in decision making. We have goals and expectations that must be met. We have tests that must be given and our students must pass them. I have a job to do. I don’t have the luxury of just demonstrating my superior knowledge in my favorite subject!