Thursday, April 11, 2013

David McCullough's Five Lessons from History

What American history buff does not know about David McCullough? He has hosted American Experience on PBS and narrated numerous PBS documentaries. Every time he writes a new book it hits the bestseller list. He has won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His presence as a historian is ubiquitous.

In September 2011 McCullough attended the National Book Festival and was asked this question: “What are five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?”

I am using this blog to summarize his answer in a way that I hope can be useful to history teachers. My summary is then followed by the embedded video of McCullough answering the question. For all history teachers, his answer should be good food for thought.

David McCullough’s Five Lessons from History (with a Coda)
  1. What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
  2. American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
  3. Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art, and architecture can teach students much about history.
  4. Students should learn history through the “lab” technique. History should be a “hands on” experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
  5. Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past. 
  6. Coda: Attitudes about history are “caught not taught.” If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.
David McCullough, National Book Festival, September 25, 2011



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