David McCullough Laments Our Lack of Historical Literacy


I don't disagree with what the man is saying--I just wish I could tell you when there really was a time in American History when we had a lot of well-informed young people in our midst:
'We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, "I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don't know." Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. "It's shocking."
He's right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.
Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at "a very good university in the Midwest." She thanked him for coming and admitted, "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast." Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough's snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. "I thought, 'What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'"
Every generation laments the stupidity of young people. And yet, the young people of today are probably more enlightened than ever when it comes to things like racism, gay rights, and having empathy for others. There's cultural literacy and then there's being enlightened. Which would you prefer?

The young people of today may not have the working knowledge of the Civil Rights movement or Brown vs Board of Education, but they are far more enlightened when it comes to racism and social justice. Can you imagine President Obama getting elected without the youth vote? Can you imagine the vitriol directed at this President coming from anyone other than an older white man? They may be stupid, but our young people have an awareness of what's right that is far better than previous generations

I covered some of this a few days ago, and I was probably a little too flip. I will say this--not everyone should go to college. But I am impressed with how the young people of today handle issues like gay rights, social justice, and racism. It's not all perfect and good, but how can you deny the fact that this is progress in the right direction?

Mr. McCullough's latest book is one that I'll pick up and read, and soon. I have to say, it's probably his least commercial book ever. The American hatred for France and all things French has continued unabated for decades. This seems like a book that tries to puncture that.