David McCullough: Teachers Should Not Major in Education

I don’t recall him saying this in the “60 Minutes” interview that aired last Sunday night, but apparently there is a longer transcript of the interview posted at the “60 Minutes” website.  Here is the pertinent passage as excerpted by The Washington Post:

Morley Safer: You, you, calling us historically illiterate.

David McCullough: Yes. I feel that very much so. I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.

Morley Safer: But are the teachers themselves semi-illiterate in history?

David McCullough: Well we need to revamp, seriously revamp, the teaching of the teachers. I don’t feel that any professional teacher should major in education. They should major in a subject, know something. The best teachers are those who have a gift and the energy and enthusiasm to convey their love for science or history or Shakespeare or whatever it is. “Show them what you love” is the old adage. And we’ve all had them, where they can change your life. They can electrify the morning when you come into the classroom.



4 thoughts on “David McCullough: Teachers Should Not Major in Education

  1. I agree with McCullough and his concerns, but the changes he seeks and many reformers in this area seek are vast and involve stakeholders who have traditionally not worked together effectively. Certain education classes are important. Teachers need to know how to manage a classroom and develop effective lesson plans that engage learners with varying degrees of abilities. That is the job of educational specialists.

    However, I agree with John that the skills of empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, listening before condemning need to be a part of the training of a historian/teacher. Is this how history is being taught to teachers at the post-secondary level? If it is not than the training of historians and teachers needs to be addressed, otherwise, the type of teacher McCullough envisions will never develop.


  2. I would strongly agree with McCullough. I was a history major in college and eventually went to seminary as well. I also went through an education program several years after finishing college in order to become a social studies teacher. The education classes did not contain much substance and I thought they were a waste of time. They simply exist to help teachers meet a bunch of meaningless standards that the state has set up for teachers. I basically ended up concluding that I did not want much to do with the public school system.

    My experience social studies teachers and coaching is similar to what Jimmy mentioned. In the public school where I taught every single teacher in the social studies department was a sports coach. Some were good teachers but some were definitley not.

    Also in the schoool where I taught students were not required to take much history. They only had to take the equivalent of one year of it and it was only American history starting just before 1900 until the present. Only students who chose to take the AP course spent more time studying American history. However, I saw the AP course, which I helped teach, as simply a test prep class.

    The place where I have seen history really emphasized at the secondary level is in private schools especially classical schools where history is a core subject. I have a connection with a classical school here in Illinois where I am currently living where history is taken every year 6th-12th grade. They also have the religion and English classes set-up to match what is being taught in history. For example the year the students take American Literature they are also taking American History.

    This school also emphasizes hiring teachers who have strong knowledge of their subjects and do not really what to hire teachers who have been through education programs. The school is still small and only a couple of years old but it is growing fast. This school would be great environment for any history teacher or a teacher of any subject for that matter.


  3. Jimmy: I am afraid that Missouri is not the only state where this is the norm. Many high school administrators are still under the false notion that ANYONE can teach history. Don't get me wrong–there are a lot of good history teachers who also coach, but these are usually exceptions to the rule. I fear for our democracy–not because this or that president was elected or because of an apparent decline in morals or something similar, but because history is a discipline that teaches us certain skills–empathy, humility, intellectual hospitality, listening before condemning, etc… that are central to our life together in a civil society.


  4. I'm finishing my MA in history this semester. I've brought up the topic of high school history teachers being primarily coaches. In my state of Missouri we have people with athletic degrees taking a Praxis II test in history, passing it, and then being certified to teach history.
    This has prompted some interesting comments from many of my fellow graduate students. We're all non-traditional students so are experiences are fairly vast. I'm far from being the only one who considers the subject of history as being a second rate subject in our nation's schools. We would like it to be a first tier subject, but when the priority for hiring a history teacher is whether or not they can coach basketball, football, etc. we have a real problem. For the last several years that's how the job openings in Northeast Missouri have read. They want coaches first and will fit them into a subject second.


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