- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Thought police in American schools and rotten history textbooks are as great a threat to American freedoms as al Qaeda terrorists, Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer David McCullough said yesterday.

“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,” Mr. McCullough, who wrote the best-selling biography of the United States’ second president, John Adams, told The Washington Times. “I mean, it’s really bad.”

Mr. McCullough, who gave the annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities last night, told an audience at the National Museum 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. But I don’t think history should ever be made to seem like some musty, unpleasant pill to be swallowed solely for our own civic good.

“History, let us agree, can be an immense source of pleasure. For almost anyone with the normal human allotment of curiosity and an interest in people, it is a field day,” he said.

In an earlier meeting with reporters, Mr. McCullough said elementary, middle and high school students are bored by dreadful history textbooks that embrace multiculturalism and cultural equivalence in order to be politically correct.

“They are deadly,” he said of the history textbooks used at all levels. “It’s as if they were designed to kill anyone’s interest in history rather than encourage it. And if you were told you have to go home tonight and read this book for two hours, you would say in your heart of hearts, what did I do wrong today that I’m being so punished?”

Mr. McCullough said he agreed with a critical assessment of current history textbooks by New York University education-research professor Diane Ravitch, in her just-published book, “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Children Learn.”

Mrs. Ravitch wrote: “The once-traditional emphasis in textbooks on the growth of democratic institutions has nearly vanished. Glencoe’s ‘World History: The Human Experience’ is typical, with its upbeat descriptions of ‘flowering civilizations’ in every part of the world.

“Students who learn about the world from these texts 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. … Nor will they have any deep knowledge of the great ideological, political, economic, and military struggles between democratic nations and their totalitarian adversaries in the 20th century,” Mrs. Ravitch wrote.

“Nor will they perceive the critical importance of freedom, democracy, and human rights in the successful functioning of multiethnic, multireligious societies. Nor will they have any insight into the historic struggle to protect religious freedom and to separate religion from the state.”

Mr. McCullough said: “It’s all true. History is a story, cause and effect. And if you’re going to teach just segments of history — women’s issues — these youngsters have almost no sense of cause and effect.

“They have no sense of what followed what and why, that everything has antecedents and everything has consequences. And they might begin to think that’s true of life, too.”

Mr. McCullough said students today “have no sense of geography — they don’t understand about struggle.” He said that when his daughter, Dorie, was a history major at Vermont’s Middlebury College in the late 1980s, “nobody was teaching anything about wars and battles, and why one side won and the other lost, and what kind of leadership was involved. … You could say this is post-Vietnam syndrome or something.

“And so many of the blessings and advantages we have, so many of the reasons why our civilization, our culture, has flourished aren’t understood; they’re not appreciated,” he said. “And if you don’t have any appreciation of what people went through to get, to achieve, to build what you are benefiting from, 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.

“[But] it didn’t just happen,” he said. “And at what price? What grief? What disappointment? What suffering went on? I mean this. I think that to be ignorant or indifferent to history isn’t just to be uneducated or stupid. It’s to be rude, ungrateful. And ingratitude is an ugly failing in human beings.”

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