How much do you know about American history?
A 2008 study by the Intercollegiate
Studies Institute, which surveyed more than 2,500 Americans, found that only half of US adults could name the country’s three branches of government.
The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) report found that only 18 percent of 8th graders were proficient or above in US history, and only 23 percent were proficient in civics.
American author and editor David Bruce Smith, founder of the Grateful American™ Foundation, talked with reporter Saba Naseem at Smithsonian magazine recently about his foundation’s efforts to restore a passion for history in kids and adults. Scroll down for excerpts of their interview.
Smithsonian: How did you develop a passion for American History?
David Bruce Smith: I was born loving history. When I was a little boy, my grandfather said I should read biographies — especially about great people like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. He believed that knowledge would flow into my young mind and pool into a reservoir of wisdom that I would be able to tap in the future. It was good advice. My mother was also a bibliophile. She kept me supplied with books about everyone from Madame Curie and Winston Churchill to Catherine the Great and Joseph Lister.
Smithsonian: You started the Grateful American™ Foundation in 2014 and the Grateful American™ Book Prize in 2015. What was your inspiration for these, and what do you hope to achieve through the projects?
David Bruce Smith: The Grateful American™ Book Prize for authors of kid-friendly books based on factual events and people in American history was created partially because I was becoming more aware of the multigenerational historical illiteracy in our country. The prize, and our Grateful American™ Foundation, also honors my father, Robert H. Smith, who often referred to himself as a “grateful American.” We are a fortunate family, and because of that, he felt very strongly about giving back. During the last 20 years of his life, he devoted himself to education, and nothing excited him more than to see a child excited about learning — particularly history.
Hopefully, the prize and the Foundation will move kids — and adults — to become more enthusiastic about history via videos, games, and interactive activities.
Smithsonian: What can schools and parents do to foster interest in history for their kids? What are some innovative techniques you suggest?
David Bruce Smith: The onus of making an appreciable shift is — unfortunately — on the teachers, because often, parents have as little historical literacy as their kids. Most importantly: The teacher has to be interesting and imaginative, and he or she should have an educational credential. Class materials should be fun and exciting; all history is, after all, storytelling. Primary and secondary sources should also be included; they would give immediacy to whatever is being studied. And, because funds are scarce almost everywhere, why haven’t more businesses pitched in with resources? The students are their future employees. Better to have an informed workplace than not.
Smithsonian: Do you see this lack of interest in history among kids as a problem in just the United States, or is it a problem worldwide?
David Bruce Smith: I don’t know if history malaise is a worldwide problem. Though it is a prickly issue, it is solvable. It might take 25 years to fix, but slow progress is better than none.
Smithsonian: What books do you recommend for teachers to help kids learn about American history?
David Bruce Smith: Here are some books I recommend:
- Esther Forbes’ “Johnny Tremain” (Revolutionary War)
- Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (Civil War)
- “The Diary of Anne Frank” (World War ll)
- Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind” (Civil War)
- Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” (Civil War)
- Leon Uris’ “Exodus” (World War ll)
- Irving Stone’s “Those Who Love” (Abigail and John Adams)
- “Love is Eternal” (Mary Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln)
- “The President’s Lady” (Rachel and Andrew Jackson)
Smithsonian:: What period of American history is most intriguing to you?
David Bruce Smith: My favorite period is the Civil War. A troubled time, but also a “Second” Declaration of Independence. I believe it was the formal beginning of civil rights, and for the disenfranchised, the eventual Emancipation Proclamation was the first concrete document to push for freedom and equal protection under the laws of the Constitution. Out of all the bad, some good has come — so far it’s been a 150-year search of questioning, questioning, questioning, and trying for the most part to make a better country — even if the way forward has been more of a zigzag than a straight line.