For History Lessons, Let Kids Play

That's historian David McCullough's advice, anyway

A million years ago, when I was in the fourth grade at Glenside Weldon Elementary School, I got to be the Empress of China in our class’s spring play. We put on plays pretty regularly, as I recall—one or two a year. They were big productions, at least in my memory, with costumes, props, scenery, and beaming parents in attendance. I have no idea where our teachers found these plays, but they all had historical underpinnings: They were about Daniel Boone’s adventures on the frontier, or Richard the Lionhearted in the Crusades, or Marie Curie winning her Nobel Prizes. In the case of the Empress of China, the play we put on related how Empress Leizu discovered the secret of silk-making when a silkworm cocoon dropped from a mulberry tree into her cup of tea as she sat in her garden.

It’s been a long time since I thought of Leizu, but I was reminded of her by an article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal in which historian David McCullough bemoans what’s become of his field of specialty. He relates how a young woman at a prestigious Midwestern university recently approached him after he gave a talk and mentioned how she never realized before that the original 13 American colonies were all on the East Coast. “What have we been doing so wrong,” McCullough asks, “that this obviously bright young woman could get so far and not know that?”

McCullough lays the blame in a lot of corners—textbooks are badly written, teachers are themselves poorly educated, parents don’t take kids to Gettysburg or the Capitol, just to Disney World. But he also mentions that the trouble begins in grade school, when students are most thirsty for knowledge and soak it up like sponges. “If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play,” he says, “you’ll never forget it as long as you live.” Heaven knows, I still remember Leizu. My kids never put on any plays in grade school. I guess there wasn’t time, with all that teaching to the test.