Cultural Illiteracy

Jul 7, 2011 by

The great teachers love what they’re teaching, and you can’t love something you don’t know anymore than you can love someone you don’t know.–David McCullough

David McCullough is of course a great American story teller, and his recent books on American history and biography–1776, John Adams, Truman–are classics.  And I look forward to reading his latest work, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. But I enjoy his teaching moments as well, and lately he has had a lot to say about the historic illiteracy of our young people.  His concerns are validated by the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high school seniors have a firm grasp of American history.  This is a tragedy of enormous proportions and it endangers our collective capability for responsible citizenship.

The causes are several, including personnel and methodology, but a significant problem is that the colleges of education don’t prepare our educators with the necessary depth in content to be effective in teaching the subject.  Another problem for McCullough is that many textbooks are so politically correct as to be comic.  I have had some direct experience with this in my review of history textbooks in Texas and in the debates on textbook adoption, for which Texas received much criticism in its recent deliberations, but which resulted in much-needed elimination of many of the political correctness biases that had been building for several years.

E. D. Hirsch has taught us that content in cultural literacy is crucial for the development of our children’s reading and critical thinking skills and I agree, but I also believe that you cannot defend what you don’t understand, and that responsible citizenship is built upon a foundation of cultural literacy and identity, which in turn has its foundation in our history.

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