I left high school sure of one thing: I was through with American history. I'd memorized and forgotten the presidents' names more than once. And none of them, except maybe Abe Lincoln, had done anything that I found interesting.
European history wasn't much better, but at least it had princes and princesses and knights in armor, although they seemed irrelevant in the modern world. Given a choice, I made sure my college freshman year was history-free.
And then a friend told me I should take a course given by a professor named David Donald. I resisted. I had no idea Mr. Donald would soon win a couple of Pulitzer Prizes. Besides, I was baffled by the title of the course: "American Intellectual History." History as I knew it was about names and dates, it was a litany of events. What is intellectual about that?
But peer pressure being what it is--very effective--I signed up for Mr. Donald's course. I'll never forget the first class.
David Donald began speaking, A small man, he had to stretch a bit to be seen above the wooden podium. The room was packed with intense young women (this was at Smith College) all of us with pens in hand. Mr. Donald spoke very fast; it was one president and one event after another. Like my peers I tried to note it all down. He went on, and on, for the whole class period, not seeming to take a breath and not slowing down. I'd never taken notes with such intensity. It was exhausting. Finally, finished, he looked up with a pixie-like grin. "I've just given you the standard American history lecture," said David Donald, "I'll spend the rest of the semester telling you why it is all wrong." In other words, throw out your notes girls, we're done with the superficial facts, we have ideas ahead of us.
And so we did. To my astonishment (and enlightenment) that's what history--exciting history--is all about. And where can you find the big ideas that change societies? Often in the arts and sciences, two disciplines that get cursory treatment in most history texts. But I learned, thanks to a great teacher, that everything that happens today --and that includes baseball and hip-hop concerts and volcanic eruptions--will be history tomorrow. History isn't just about wars and political happenings. David Donald taught me that the most significant historic events involve those things that penetrate minds.
Some years later, after stints as a classroom teacher and others as a newspaper reporter and editor, I decided to write an American history and after that world history books that focus on science. Of course I told David Donald who was wonderfully supportive.
The books I wrote (and am writing) are very much inspired by his example. I keep asking myself, what will teachers five hundred years from now teach about the American history I know? Will they focus on our wars? (Do we focus on the Thirty Years War, which according to Wikipedia was "one of the longest, most destructive in European history.") I believe it is our big ideas that will outlast and perhaps inspire those who follow us. Where do we find those ideas? Often in science. Do we teach science history? Not well enough.
In this, the greatest scientific era ever, most history curricula still focus on political events--not on ideas. Where can we find those ideas? In the modern world they are overwhelmingly in science. Why are we ignoring them? In part because we divide subjects into rigid categories and, history, which should be the all-encompassing discipline, still focuses mostly on political happenings.
Do you teach the story of the roguish American Benjamin Thomson who was a friend of King George III, morphed into Count Rumford, and as an inventor/scientist made a real impact on his world? How about Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, a duo whose ideas led to Albert Einstein and modern physics? Do your students know the tale of the American kid who broke all the rules--Richard Feynman--laying foundations that support today's Information Age? History with its big ideas included--intellectual history--works with young minds. I learned that lesson from a great history teacher, who changed my life.