Column about Don McNay in Louisville Courier Journal and Cincinnati Enquirer
Can teachers teach if they don't know?
July 3, 2005
Fourth of July eve seems an appropriate time to share a red, white and blue footnote on the First Amendment: Don McNay's opinion on the subject of middle and high school history teachers.
McNay, 46, is president of a financial planning group in Richmond, Ky. His firm handles portfolios for people who receive large settlements in personal injury cases or win lottery jackpots. He may not need the stipend he is paid as a weekly columnist in the business section of the Richmond Register -- but he needs to speak his mind.
The headline of one of his recent columns caught my eye: "History Teachers Who Don't Know History."
"About twenty years ago, I was asked to speak to a college business class," he began. "I told the class they should stop studying business and study history and English instead. I was never invited back."
McNay's advice stemmed primarily from his experience of having attended college during the late 1970s and early '80s with many students who studied mainframe computers, only to see their knowledge rendered obsolete within a few years.
An unabashed liberal who once dabbled in politics but never ran for office, McNay usually stays away from international affairs and focuses on the social side of business issues closer to home. "My readers don't want another financial advice column."
Jennifer Kustes, assistant editor of the Register, said McNay's popular column brings a good local perspective to the paper's business section.
"Sometimes he is lighthearted and funny, but sometimes he tackles things a little heavier," she said.
The Edgewood, Ky., native, whose love of history was inspired by his two history teachers at Covington Catholic High School, holds undergraduate degrees in political science and journalism from Eastern Kentucky University and a master's in political science from Vanderbilt, as well as a master's in financial planning.
In business, he insists, one must understand where the market has been in order to know where it may be going. Correctly analyzing the trends is often a matter of interpreting history.
McNay's column notes that Chester Finn Jr., his former political science professor at Vanderbilt and now a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institute, recently reported in an education newsletter that only 31 percent of middle school history teachers and 41 percent of high school history teachers actually majored in history.
"Several fields may be necessary for middle school teachers, but I am horrified at the terrible percentage for high school teachers," McNay wrote. "I don't blame the teachers. I blame the administrators who hire them."
McNay recalls having been shocked at the number of students he met in college who hated history.
"When I asked why, I found they had high school teachers with no background or interest in history. The 'teachers' made the students memorize dates and random facts. … History is about great people, great events and great movements."
Notes of support
Since his column appeared -- in addition to one reader who sent him a long list of profanities -- McNay says he has received numerous supportive notes from parents, along with confidential messages from teachers who say they are teaching subjects about which they know next to nothing.
"How much is that going on? I don't know," McNay said. He concluded his column: "If I were in charge of schools, administrators who hired history teachers who didn't know history would only have to know one date -- their termination date. It would be listed under current events."
You may read more of Don McNay's opinions at www.donmcnay.com, or you can give him a piece of your mind at the same address. It's a free country.
You can reach Byron Crawford at (502) 582-4791 or e-mail him at email@example.com. You can also read his columns at www.courier-journal.com.