The Blog

Go to for Don McNay's column and other articles.

Friday, July 01, 2005

History Teachers Who Don't Know History

Don McNay's Column, from

History Teachers Who Don't Know History

"Don't Know Much About History"

-Sam Cooke

About 20 years ago, I was asked to speak to a college business class.

I told the class they should stop studying business and study history and English instead.

I was never invited back.

In business you need to understand where your market has been and where it is going. You can look at history and analyze trends.

I have a passion for history. That fire was lit by tremendous high school and college history teachers.

Chester Finn Jr., my former professor at Vanderbilt and an education guru, noted that only 31% of middle school history teachers and 41% 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 history teachers.

I don't blame the teachers. I blame the administrators who hire them.

When I went to college, I kept meeting students who hated history. To me that was like hating pizza or the American flag. I could not believe that someone could not love 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.

Students subjected to classes like that should be able to sue the school for malpractice and have the school administrators arrested for torture.

History is about great people, great events and great movements. My wife took a class in European history at Hazard Community College from John Knox Brown. Brown told the students to forget what they learned in high school and that only a few dates, like 1215 (the Magna Carta) were important.

Brown understood that history is about the big picture.

I was lucky that I found teachers who understood that too.

My two high school teachers, Tim Banker and Joe Hackett, could not have been more different.

Banker was Irish, left handed, funny, and coached football and track. Since I was Irish, left handed, funny and played football and track, in my junior year I became his favorite student.

I was not a likely teacher's pet. After my sophomore year in high school, I ranked 110 in a class of 128. I played sports, but was not good at them. My friends were the top five students in the class and the worst five students in the class. The police were on a first name basis with the bottom five and learning my name too.

Banker helped me get excited about history and school in general. I became a good student and drifted away from the negative crowd.

Banker knew his history but was also a great entertainer. He thought learning should be fun and it was.

But there was nothing fun about my other mentor, Joe Hackett. I've never known a tougher disciplinarian.

Hackett had been a meat cutter in Covington and did not graduate from college until he was nearly 50.

Hackett coached state champion baseball teams and I suspect his ability as a baseball coach kept him from getting fired. Hackett was a registered Socialist who taught in a conservative Catholic school. He challenged and intimidated my classmates, no matter how well connected their parents were.

Hackett taught that the powerful must be challenged or they will trample the rights of the less powerful.

I left his class never being afraid to challenge authority. I was only afraid of him.

He loved me and I was the first person to receive an award named for him. We stayed in touch for the rest of his life but he was not my buddy, he was my teacher.

I want every young person to have teachers like Banker and Hackett. They should have teachers with passion who actually studied what they are teaching.

They should have teachers who are not trying to stay one chapter ahead of their students.

I want them to have teachers for whom, "Don't Know Much about History" is not a theme song.

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.

Don McNay is President of McNay Settlement Group, which has a 23 year history and plans to make a lot more history. You can write to him at or read other things he has written at