By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent magazine
“You have to know where you came from to know where you are going,” insists David Bruce Smith, a Washington, DC-based author and publisher who recently penned American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.
That’s why in January 2014 Smith launched The Grateful American™ Series, which includes:
- The Grateful American™ Radio Show on the Inkandescent Radio Network featuring interviews about historical figures (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, etc.) with the chief executives of the nation’s presidential homes, historians, and other experts.
- A TV series on YouTube, public access, and national TV stations.
- Grateful American™ Guidebooks: Featuring insights from the leaders of the presidential homes, and interactive exercises that explore, engage, and help readers develop an interest in American history.
- Grateful American™ Events: Dovetailing with and promoting the events-in-progress currently going on at each of the nation’s top presidential homes.
- An interactive website: Here students will post art, photos, writing, music, and other creative works that share their ideas about what excites them about American history.
Smith has described the project as one where more people can dive into the genealogy of the country.
“Educators know history is critical to students learning how to become better citizens and understanding how the country’s political and cultural systems work,” says Smith.
“Students need to not only recognize leaders like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, but also understand why they were important to the development of the country.”
Smith knows of what he speaks, for he comes from a long line of grateful Americans.
- His grandfather, DC construction mogul Charles E. Smith, (1901-1995) was a philanthropist and businessman who founded Charles E. Smith Cos. in 1946—one of Washington’s largest builders, developers, and property managers. Known for his wisdom, energy, and patient determination, Smith came to America from Russia as a boy unable to speak English and surmounted serious fiscal setbacks during the Great Depression and afterward before going on to build dozens of office buildings and thousands of apartment units in the Washington area. The Charles E. Smith Center, at the George Washington University, was named for Charles when he was a university trustee and chairman of the Committee on University Development.
- Smith’s father is Robert H. Smith (1928-2009). He took over the family business in 1967 with his brother-in-law, Robert P. Kogod. Together, they grew the company into one of the largest commercial and residential landlords in the Washington, DC, area, managing 24 million square feet of office space and more than 30,000 residential units. The Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park, was named in his honor in 1998.
- Smith’s mother is Clarice Smith, for whom the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland was named in 2001. An internationally acclaimed artist who has had numerous shows from New York City to Paris, she has collaborated with her son on several books, including American Hero.
“I actually borrowed the title for The Grateful American™ Series from my father, who always referred to himself that way,” says Smith about the impact his family had on him. “The community and this country have been good to my family, and he never forgot it. I haven’t either. This is my way of giving back.”
Unfortunately, studies show too many Americans—kids especially—aren’t knowledgeable about the country’s history.
Smith points to the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress report, which showed that just 13 percent of high school seniors tested showed solid academic performance in American history. The two other grade levels tested didn’t perform much better, with just 22 percent of 4th grade students and 18 percent of 8th graders scoring proficient or better.
“The test quizzed students on such topics as colonization, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the contemporary United States, and one question asked 4th graders why it was important for the United States to build canals in the 1800s,” Smith explains. “But an amazing number of students weren’t able to answer those questions.
At the time, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said ‘the results tell us that, as a country, we are failing to provide children with a high-quality, well-rounded education.’ And I couldn’t agree more.”
Smith is frustrated that adults don’t seem to fare much better when tested on their knowledge of American history.
“In 2009, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute asked 2,500 randomly selected Americans 33 questions on civic literacy, and 71 percent of them received an average score of 49 percent—which is an F,” Smith shares, noting that the quiz revealed that more than twice as many people know Paula Abdul was a judge on the TV program, “American Idol,” than know that the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people” comes from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
“It’s hard to believe, but unfortunately it’s true,” says Smith, who is hopeful that to change the way Americans view history with The Grateful American™ Series. “The founding fathers and the iconic Americans who have made us into the country we are today should be as present in our lives as the Hollywood celebrities who dance across our TV screens. With the help of the leaders of our national presidential homes, educators, and history experts, my goal is to bring the exciting stories of their lives to the forefront.”
Don’t miss our podcast interview with David Bruce Smith, which will be the first episode of his new show on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
And stay tuned for more articles in his monthly History column, on Be Inkandescent magazine.
Scroll down for more insights from David Bruce Smith on why he launched The Grateful American™ Series
Be Inkandescent: What inspired you to launch the series?
David Bruce Smith: Generally, kids are not being taught history, effectively and with that comes the tendency to slough it off. We need to have the same feeling of patriotism that existed after 9/11, but without the framework of a disaster. I think the title, “The Grateful American™ Series,” will help stimulate some of those thoughts.
Be Inkandescent: What are your goals for the project?
David Bruce Smith: One would be to encourage the teaching of history in the most interesting, innovative way possible. To do that, schools need to find the most qualified people. Otherwise, kids will turn off—fast.
Be Inkandescent: Do you think textbooks, which can be less than riveting, are part of the problem?
David Bruce Smith: Textbooks can be part of the problem, in that they cover the sweep of history unevenly or not at all. Sometimes, they are also too complicated and verbose. I think it’s good to mix standard texts with films, biographies, diaries, and guest speakers.
Be Inkandescent: Adults don’t seem to know much more than kids when tested on their knowledge of American history. Do you think this is really a problem, and if so, why?
David Bruce Smith: Adults having little knowledge about American history? I think this shows the problem has existed for a long time. It’s hard to fix those deficiencies, but you can make it up by educating this generation and the upcoming one, conscientiously. A standardized test is not going to fix it, because all that means is cramming in a lot of dates, which are quickly forgotten.
Be Inkandescent: What are some solutions to getting more kids and adults excited about knowing American history, and re-igniting our passion for the people who founded the country?
David Bruce Smith: Qualified teachers, and more visits to historical sites. School budgets are tight; I don’t know why local and national businesses don’t contribute funds to make these outings possible. It would be an investment in their future employees. I would also encourage more interactive lessons, and getting historians, authors, and key people from the presidential homes to visit schools.
Be Inkandescent: In the Grateful American™ Series, you are interviewing the leaders of the nation’s biggest presidential homes—including Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, Lincoln’s Cottage, as well as the national museum at Gettysburg at Franklin’s House in London. What are some of your favorite things about each home?
David Bruce Smith: Except for Lincoln Cottage, all of the other homes were owned by Founding Fathers. These were the men who made it possible for all of us to live in this wonderfully free society—in the best country in the history of the world.
Be Inkandescent: Who is your favorite president, and why?
David Bruce Smith: Definitely Abraham Lincoln. Ever since I was a little boy, Lincoln was my favorite for one reason: he freed the slaves. Had he not, it would have been many years before anybody else was bold and brave enough to do it.
Be Inkandescent: You also have a passion for the First Ladies, and the women who shaped America’s early history. Why is that, and what are some of your favorites stories about these ladies?
David Bruce Smith: Some of the First Ladies are under-recognized for their contributions to their husband’s successes. For example: Had it not been for Abigail Adams, I don’t think John Adams would have become president. He was difficult and moody, but she evened him out. Dolly Madison filled in the weaknesses of James Madison. He was bookish and scholarly, but she was the one with personality and she was the perfect hostess. As a couple they were a perfect combination. Mary Todd Lincoln: even with her justifiable mental illness, she was intelligent, advised Lincoln well, and was prescient. Thirty years before the inauguration, she informed the Todd family that one day, Abraham will be president. Nancy Reagan was the non-pathological version of Mrs. Lincoln. I think that because she was not able to make it the movies, she channeled all of her ambition, love, and energy into his career. Eleanor Roosevelt was probably the best First Lady in history. She was FDR’s legs, ears, and trusted advisor.
Be Inkandescent: If you could accomplish one thing with The Grateful American™ Series what would it be?
David Bruce Smith: To develop an appreciation for history. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do, especially if the challenge is properly framed. If one thinks about the whole—or a piece—of it as an Ancestry.com on the country, it should make more sense, and be fun to learn.
About David Bruce Smith
David Bruce Smith has a bachelor’s degree in American Literature from George Washington University, and a master’s in Journalism from New York University. During the past 20 years he has been a real estate executive and the editor-in-chief/publisher of Crystal City Magazine.
He is the author of 11 books: “In Many Arenas,” • “13 Young Men, Tennessee,” • “Three Miles From Providence,” • “Conversations with Papa Charlie,” • “Afternoon Tea with Mom,” • “Letters to My Children,” • “Building the Community,” • “Continuum,” • “Building My Life,” • and his most recent, “American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.”
His company David Bruce Smith Publications, specializes in creating, designing, and composing limited-edition books on a variety of subjects: authors, historic figures, artists, and leaders. Several are about the amazing life-story of real estate developer and philanthropist Charles E. Smith. David Bruce Smith Publications is committed to educating young children through books, literature, and historic sites.
For more information, visit davidbrucesmith.com.