ON EDUCATION AND THE ARTS
By David McCullough
Question: Do you feel that a love for and an understanding of our country has been lost among the citizenry? If so, what can we do as a community to cultivate it?
McCullough: I don't think it is lost, but it is eroding because we have been doing a very less-than-adequate job of educating our children in history. I think it is not exaggerating to say that we have been raising several generations of young Americans who are, by and large, historically illiterate. And it is not their fault. It is our fault. That has got to be corrected.
Question: How can we better teach history in schools today?
McCullough: We can do a better job of teaching our teachers. We shouldn't send teachers who don't know history into a classroom. And we need to get rid of these dreadful textbooks. Some textbooks are quite good, but there are far too many that are deadly. It's almost as if they were written to kill any interest the student might ever have in history. I've taught classes at Cornell, Dartmouth, and elsewhere. I've never asked a student to read something I wouldn't want to read. Nor do I think that one necessarily has to stick to history or biography. I've used the novel The Killer Angels in teaching a course, and I've used Willa Cather's novel My Antonia. There are many superb novels that take one into that time past. That's what you're trying to do—get across that barrier of time between us and them. It's possible; you can feel the reality of what happened.
I don't think you can know something until you feel it. If you could know something without feeling it, then go look it up in the encyclopedia. But if you're going to remember it, if it is going to become part of you, you have to have some feeling about it. And that is, of course, what the theater does, what poetry does, what some movies can do powerfully.
Question: What do you think is changing in education these days?
McCullough: Well I'm very concerned about the cutback in the arts. I think that's a serious flaw, and we'll pay for it eventually. I think that the abandoning of prerequisites in college education—that students who are going to major in the humanities or liberal arts don't have to take any history, for example—is inexcusable. In some places students don't have to take a foreign language. How flagrantly unrealistic that is. How naïve to think that we're going to hold our place in the world with no concern about other people's languages and understanding other people. I think that's a very great failing in education today.
We're not paying our teachers enough. That's self-evident. But I think, too, we don't give them sufficient recognition as the important people in society that they are. I think they're our most important people. Too often people think of them as glorified babysitters taking care of our children while we go out and do the important work. Who are we kidding?
I'm very concerned that the academic-performance level of people going into teaching is getting lower. Because so many students have debts to pay—debts they have accrued because of their education—and feel they can't afford to take a low-paying teaching job, which won't enable able them to pay off their debts. I have a son who is a very able 20-year veteran of teaching, and I know what a struggle it's been for him.
Question: Aside from pay, how can we help ennoble the calling of teaching?
McCullough: Well, I think corporations and hospitals and eleemosynary institutions ought to have teachers on their boards of directors so they are seen as people of consequence in the community. I think there ought to be major awards for teachers given by every town and city. I think the newspapers ought to do thoughtful profiles of good teachers and what distinguishes their particular way of teaching or what has distinguished their particular career. And don't wait until they retire or die to write about the good they've done. After all, these are people who touch and influence the lives of thousands. We should raise their position and their level of respect in the community in every way possible.
Question: You've mentioned the importance of the arts. How do they relate to teaching history?
McCullough: If you take history and squeeze all of the flavor and color and life out of it, it's a dead thing. It ought to be alive because that's the way it was. It's about life. Our musicians, our dancers, our painters are often expressing the deepest longings, the deepest worries, fears, aspirations of our own time. It's been the same in all times. To say you're writing history or understanding history and you're putting all that—the art, the music—over in the department of art or department of music—that's to look at history with blinders on. The more art and music and theater and literature that can be brought into the teaching and the enjoyment and the understanding of history, the better.
That's why it's so important that we keep the arts alive in our public schools, grade schools, and high schools. We're cheating our children if we cut back or stop art programs, art classes, and music programs. In New York City there is a warehouse full of musical instruments that belong to the public school system that aren't being used because they are not teaching music anymore. That's disgraceful. That's a scandal, in my view.
We ought to be teaching history by including the arts. It is one way to get closer to the humanity of the people of the other times. Imagine all those statues in Washington of past generals and politicians who stand forgotten in street circles and little parks, serving mainly as perches for pigeons. Then imagine the music of Gershwin, which is as alive and fresh and thrilling as the day it was written. The same with the paintings and the theater of other times. Here we are quoting and talking about Shakespeare centuries later. And I find that part of history extremely moving and reassuring as a source of strength. They weren't just painters, they were living in a time and they were expressing the time they lived in. Go back and read again some of the classics of English literature that you were required to read in high school and college. The reason that they're classics is that they are marvelous. And it is not just the quality of the writing; it is the quality of the thinking, because that is what writing is—thinking.
Question: What lessons can we learn from those you have studied regarding education?
McCullough: That it only comes through hard work. You have to really apply yourself. You have to buckle down and burn the midnight oil. And that education can indeed transform the life of an individual and thus transform the society in which the individual lives. The importance of education, the willingness to spend large sums of money, to enlist all kinds of talent, to create improved education is a powerful, prevailing theme through our whole history, from the very beginning. If you were going to pick out two or three consistent, continuing themes in American life, education is one.
Harry Truman is the only president of the 20th century who never went to college. But I would say that that was in no way indicative of how learned he was. He wasn't an intellectual, and he wasn't steeped in any academic discipline, but he never stopped reading. His great love was to read history. Truman was very interested in the Civil War. He was also quite serious about music. He would go to hear the National Symphony, not because it was a photo opportunity or because it was the dearest pleasure of a political backer. He went to the National Symphony because he loved it. And if they were playing somebody he was particularly fond of, Mozart, for example, he would take the score.