A Student of History

August 7, 2006

Academics, Popular History & Teaching

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 10:08 pm

Kevin M. Levin, who blogs at Civil War Memory (which I check several times a week, its a good read) reminded his readers in his 8/7 post about a speech David McCullough gave last year in which he talks about history teachers and how they should be prepared.  The text of the speech is here.  The part that struck Mr. Levin, and me too, was this:

We have to do a far better job of teaching our teachers. We have too many teachers who are graduating with degrees in education. They go to schools of education or they major in education, and they graduate knowing something called education, but they don’t know a subject. They’re assigned to teach botany or English literature or history, and of course they can’t perform as they should. Knowing a subject is important because you want to know what you’re talking about when you’re teaching. But beyond that, you can’t love what you don’t know.

Reminds me of a quip I read in AHA Perspectives in which the author noted that most school kids in the US are taught history by a guy named “Coach.”

However, what is also striking is how much of an optomist McCullough is, as one can tell in the text of that speech.  (See also my previous post “McCullough in Maine”.) He also has a certain sense of civic duty and (dare I say it) patriotism.  Not the “love it or leave it kind” but one that looks to the best Americans have to give and who we are, not the worst.  Sadly, perhaps that is what seperates him the most (in addition to major sales of his books!) from academics, many of whom in my seven years in their world sneer at notions of patriotism, and perform very lettle civic duties beyond voting and writing ascerbic, polemical letters to the NY Times.  Perhaps McDonough’s optomism, which does come across in his books, is what irritates a lot of the academic crowd, for he is certainly not one of them.  In a very interesting piece in Slate last year, called “That Barnes and Noble Dream” David Greenberg acknowledges this:

This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough’s rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It’s safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington’s heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough’s finely wrought prose. It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough’s undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough’s fans won’t care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.


Note that Greenberg says that 1776–which you will note he has not even read yet at the time of the article–will be in academic eyes an amateurish, ignorable book because it deals with “personality,” and has “meager analysis and argument.”  Greenberg also deplores “the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered.”  Doubtless Greeneberg could find a rationale for another book on, say, McCarthyism or some other favorite topic of the academic establishment even though “amply covered.” 

It is quite interesting to note that one never reads of McCullough trashing academics in interviews or columns.  That gets back to his optomism.  Like this, in which you will note that he emphasizes teaching–something many university profs go to some length to avoid during the careers: 

History isn’t just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it’s going to make us a better citizen. It will make us a better citizen; or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will. It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.


  1. Allan W. Eckert is another “story telling” author that mixes “scene-setting and personality” with historically accurate events. Eckert calls it “narrative biography” and “narrative history.” He also explains that his readers “may, as with a good novel, feel himself drawn into the current of events and identify closely with the characters.” Eckert strives to do this while maintaining his work as a “reliable, accurate depiction of the history it embraces.” And if one has ever read ‘That Dark and Bloody River: Chronicles of the Ohio River Valley’ or ‘A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh’ it’s obvious that Eckert was successful in his goals. These works are just plain good. And I can only imagine the numbers of young people that were (and will be) turned on to history because of authors like McCullough or Eckert. Academics, instead of looking down their noses at story-telling writers, would do better to find ways to bring more people to an interest in history.

    Comment by Murray Winland — August 10, 2006 @ 1:05 am | Reply

  2. I completely agree with Murray Winland- I am one of those young people turned on to history because of McCullough. I met him, and he is a very nice man whose book John Adams has really changed me. I do see the flaws in it, and I’ve gone on to read biographies that are “academic.” I do enjoy the analysis and it has brought me up a level in history, but I also see the value of popular history. I can’t stand the snobbery of the academia. It turns me off at times, because I keep wanting them to be humble and realize that most of the population can’t read their books. Their books have a purpose- but so do McCullough’s.

    Comment by felicity12 — December 30, 2008 @ 10:03 am | Reply

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