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Education Reporter

Ignorance of American History Puts Nation at Risk, Expert Says 
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WASHINGTON, DC - Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian David McCullough believes that the ignorance of American history among U.S. high school students and teachers is a threat to national security. McCullough outlined his concerns in April before a Senate panel seeking to promote legislation for federally sponsored summer "presidential academies" aimed at educating American history and civics teachers. Four-week academies are proposed for students.

McCullough told the panel, headed by Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, that "we are raising a generation of people who are historically illiterate."

A former president of the Society of American Historians, McCullough blamed the blending of history with broader social studies curricula for poor student knowledge of the subject. "It is impossible for even the best-trained teacher to do justice to the full sweep of America's history in a curriculum that also covers such topics as geography, the environment, conflict resolution and world cultures," McCullough stated.

McCullough testified that students can't name the American Revolutionary War commanding general at Yorktown, nor do they know much about George Washington. It is important to know who Washington is, he explained, because without him "we wouldn't have our Constitution nor would we have the presidency that we have." Last year, McCullough won the Pulitzer for his latest work, a biography about Founding Father John Adams.

The author and historian pointed out that only three U.S. colleges require a course on the Constitution and they are all military institutions: the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy.

Last month, McCullough gave the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities, where he reiterated the importance of the factual teaching of American history. "For a free, self-governing people, something more than a vague familiarity with history is essential if we are to hold onto and sustain our freedom," he asserted.

McCullough was more outspoken with reporters, comparing "thought police" in American schools and "rotten history books" to terrorists in terms of their threat to American freedom. "Something's eating away at the national memory, and a nation or a community or a society can suffer as much from the adverse effects of amnesia as can an individual," he told the Washington Times (5-16-03).

McCullough professed agreement with education research professor Diane Ravitch in her new book The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn.

Ravitch contends that "students who learn about the world" from today's history textbooks "are unlikely to understand why some civilized nations flourished and others languished, or why people vote with their feet to leave some places and go to others." (See Ranking High School History Textbooks) "Nor will students "have any deep knowledge of the great ideological, political, economic, and military struggles between democratic nations and their totalitarian adversaries in the 20th century," she wrote.

McCullough pronounced Ravitch's assertions "all true." "If you're going to teach just segments of history - women's issues - youngsters have almost no sense of cause and effect," he explained. "So many of the blessings and advantages we have, so many of the reasons why our culture has flourished aren't understood, they're not appreciated."

"If you don't have any appreciation of what people went through to get, to achieve, to build what you are benefiting from," he continued, "then these things don't mean very much to you. You just think, well, that's the way it is. That's our birthright. That just happened."

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