Tuesday, November 19, 2013

History Is Important, You Guys

1776 by David McCullough
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There are several reasons why I think this book is important, and it has a lot to do with the state of our schools. You've probably heard that public education in America is becoming more of a shambles each decade. I work at a community college and often feel like I'm on the front lines of this battle. While we have a number of good students, we also have a fair number 18- and 19-year-olds who simply aren't prepared for higher education and who, if the economy weren't so degree-oriented, probably wouldn't choose to go to college at all. A number of factors have been blamed for the decline of American schools, but one of the biggest culprits in my opinion is the overemphasis on standardized testing, especially as codified by the dreadful No Child Left Behind Act.

Both students and teachers have complained that high schools place so much emphasis on memorizing facts for the annual tests that it leaves little room for critical thinking, or interesting stories of history and literature, or anything else that makes learning fun and inspiring. I think this is a travesty, and it's not just the students who are being cheated — it is all of society, because without an educated citizenry we are lost.

We. Are. Lost.

Every time I see the title of McCullough's book, 1776, it reminds me of this issue because of an incident in a colleague's classroom. An English professor was making a point about how people today rely so much on their smartphones and the Internet that no one bothers to remember anything anymore because they assume they can just Google it. The professor pointed out that this lack of internal knowledge can hinder understanding and complex thinking. As an example he asked his students when America was founded. 

Dead silence. 

There were about 30 students in the class, and none of them knew. The professor said, "Seriously? You don't know when our country was founded?" After a few more moments of silence a student meekly raised his hand and said, "If we didn't have to memorize it for the test, we probably don't know it."

Big sigh.

OK, boys and girls, America was founded on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. This event happened in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, which is the focus of McCullough's book. 

I wanted to read 1776 for several reasons. First, I had loved McCullough's biography on President Harry Truman and was eager to read more of his books. Second, it has been almost 20 years since I was in an American history class, and I wanted to revisit the details of how my country was founded. The stories, myths and legends about each nation are passed through the generations and become part of someone's culture and identity. I don't think these stories should be forgotten.

The book focuses on battles with the British between 1775 and 1777. It opens with a quote from a letter written by General George Washington in January 1776: "The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few people know the predicament we are in." 

Reading this book reminded me of how fragile America's independence was. Few of the "rebels" had military experience. Weapons and gun powder were in short supply. Because the colonial men had volunteered to fight, some resisted following military orders and didn't understand army discipline. Plus, the Brits controlled the sea. But for a few lucky turns of fate, the British might have won the war. McCullough concluded the book with this summation: "Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle." 

My favorite stories in the book were of the fortification of Dorchester Heights during the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Long Island and how the colonialists managed to retreat the entire Army in one night, and Washington's crossing of the Delaware. McCullough weaves a pleasant narrative and makes long-ago events seem very real. I liked his inclusion of quotes from letters, and the details of each military strategy, including how the weather was that day. And his description of Washington made me want to read a good biography about him.

I listened to this on audio CD, and McCullough is an excellent narrator. I highly recommend it to fans of history. Hooray for lifelong learning!

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