• Parenting

Why Is It Important to Teach History to Children?

By Kathleen McCarthy
Managing Editor
Be Inkandescent magazine

Kids today don’t know history like they used to, but it’s not their fault, insists The John Marshall Foundation.

“The modern emphasis on standardized testing and teaching that favors skills over knowledge is to blame,” according to the organization, which sponsors educational and public interest programs or other activities in the fields of law, government, history and public affairs to promote a greater public understanding of Chief Justice John Marshall and his contributions. “As a result, history has fallen by the wayside in US classrooms.”

Consider this: A 2011 nationwide test, US history is now American students’ worst subject, many 4th graders are unable to say why Abraham Lincoln was important.

“If even Lincoln isn’t memorable to American students, what will happen to equally important but less regaled pioneers of our past?” asks David Bruce Smith, author of a new children’s book on Marshall entitled, American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.

This concern is a driving force behind the Richmond, VA-based Foundation, and the inspiration behind the children’s picture book that it commissioned.

Illustrated by world-renowned artist Clarice Smith, David Smith’s mother, the book is dedicated to his father, Robert — the benefactor behind the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business “who was convinced that John Marshall, the ‘forgotten’ Founding Father, composed a life worthy of study and remembrance by every American,” David says.

Best of all, the book brings to elementary school-aged children the life and ideas of the nation’s fourth chief justice.

Did you know, for instance, that John Marshall almost single-handedly transformed the Supreme Court into the powerful branch of government we know today?

“Kids need to make a personal connection with the people they are studying. Kids who ‘hate history’ are the ones who never were exposed to the human side of the people they are studying,” says US History teacher Josh Hoekstra, a Minnesota educators who has generated headlines for his innovative approach to getting his students interested in history.

It’s in this spirit that “American Hero” was conceived, explains David.

The result is a picture book that focuses on John Marshall the boy, and later the man, revealing the personal side of an important historic figure. Complete with an educational vocabulary list and more than 30 graphite and watercolor illustrations, the goal is to captivate young readers.

“My mother has been my collaborator for 25 years,” shares David, noting that the Marshall book is the first children’s book either of has worked on.

That said, both David and Clarice have impressive resumes in the publishing world. A writer, publisher, and editor of limited edition books, David has published books on Abraham Lincoln and playwright Tennessee Williams, as well as five books on his grandfather, Robert, and one on his mother.

  • See the February 2013 Be Inkandescent interview with Clarice Smith and David Bruce Smith about their productive collaboration.
  • Scroll down for our interview with author David Bruce Smith about “American Hero.”

Be Inkandescent: How did you happen to write a children’s book about John Marshall?

David Bruce Smith: The “Marshall” book was a lucky break. It was commissioned by The John Marshall Foundation in Richmond, Virginia, with the intent of raising his profile. Today, most people either don’t know who he is, or they think of Gen. George Marshall from World War II. Before I began working on this book, I thought he was our nation’s first chief justice—he was actually the fourth one.

Be Inkandescent: What did you want to do with your book on John Marshall’s life that other books about him don’t?

David Bruce Smith: One of the things I wanted to do was make it a book that children could relate to. When I was researching Marshall, I went through all the existing children’s books on him. There weren’t that many, but all of them were so flat and idealized.

Usually children’s books about notable figures all sound the same—he was born, he did a few great things, then he died. I know many children come from troubled homes, and I wanted them to know that a lot of successful people, including John Marshall, overcame some difficult challenges in his family. For example, he and his wife Polly Marshall were very close. But four of their 10 children died, three in infancy and one in early childhood, and she became depressed. I wrote about her being sick, although we didn’t use the word “depressed.”

I also included that President George Washington wanted Marshall to work for the government, but Marshall was happy working as a lawyer and didn’t want to be in public office. He tried to say no. “But President Washington said, ‘It is good for the country and you are good for the job,’” so Marshall ran for a seat in Congress and won.

Before that he had served in the US Army in the Revolutionary War and was at Valley Forge during the terrible winter there in 1777. After serving in Congress, he became a diplomat, secretary of state, and finally, John Adams’s choice to be the chief justice of the United States. He ended up serving as chief justice longer than anyone else in US history.

Be Inkandescent: What about John Marshall’s life do you think children today will relate to?

David Bruce Smith: I think children will find it interesting that until John Marshall headed the Supreme Court, justices wore red robes and white powdered wigs—a tradition inherited from the British. Marshall changed the robes to black because they were more comfortable and less itchy, and less British looking, too!

But that’s not what’s most noteworthy about him. I think children will be interested in finding out how Marshall made the court into a revered and respected institution.

Under Marshall’s tenure as chief justice, the Supreme Court went from meeting a few days a year in a boarding house on Capitol Hill to meeting in a basement in the Capitol, to having its own building. Now the court meets for nine or 10 months of each year.

And his accomplishments were celebrated until relatively recently—60 years ago he was as famous as actress and comedienne Lucille Ball. There were schools named after him, his philosophies were absorbed into the curricula. He was huge. But now, unless you’re an attorney, you wouldn’t know who he was.

Writing this book about Marshall is a way to resurrect him, to bring him to life for another generation. Because he’s dead right now. But he’s so important! The judicial decisions he made were so far-ranging. He ruled on education, the Indians, on Aaron Burr’s trial—while Burr was vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson!

Be Inkandescent: Did anything surprise you in your research about him?

David Bruce Smith: The first thing that surprised me in my research was that he was such a nice man. Everyone liked him (except for Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president). Marshall was kind and treated everyone with respect. I think kids like to read about people like that. Also, kids care deeply about fairness, and Marshall is a symbol of justice.

Another thing that surprised me, not about Marshall, but about our nation’s grasp of the past, is how poor it is. Eighty-nine percent of adults in America believe the American Revolution came after the Civil War. That’s pretty bad. That’s why I feel it’s so important to teach kids about history.

The last surprise is so good that I ended the book with it. The Liberty Bell, which symbolizes our nation’s freedom, was among the bells thought to have rung in July 1776 to mark the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. When Marshall died in 1835, the Liberty Bell was said to have rung at his funeral to honor him. The great bell cracked and has never rung again.

Be Inkandescent: Let me play Devil’s advocate here. Why does it matter if no one remembers when the Civil War or Revolutionary War took place or why they were fought?

David Bruce Smith: But it does matter. Those events are relevant to who we are. The Revolutionary War is about democracy and independence. Those aren’t outdated ideals. The recent government shutdown in October should—and has—provoked all kinds of questions about the democratic process and the abuse of democracy.

The Civil War is the war we’ve never gotten over and probably never will. It’s the war that kept us together, but it’s also the war that tore us apart, and we’re not healed yet.

You have to know where you came from, and we have to pass that knowledge down to our children. History keeps repeating itself; it doesn’t become irrelevant.

Be Inkandescent: Do you think there’s a good age for children to learn about the history of the United States and prominent people in it?

David Bruce Smith: The younger the better, because there is a better chance of capturing their curiosity before their defense mechanisms start to interfere.

Because history generally is being taught so badly in this country, and because the demographics in the United States are changing so much because of immigration, kids are not going to know Ben Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, and others like them who should not be forgotten.

If you can grab children’s attention to historic figures early on, before they realize they are even interested in history, you can get them before they start to resist. They will especially resist a boring teacher.

Be Inkandescent: What was the research process like on the book?

David Bruce Smith: Alternately illuminating and frustrating. Between us, we read all of the available children’s books about him, but there wasn’t much. My mother studied portraits of Marshall—each of which was different, and she researched how houses were furnished, the styles of clothing, and how Marshall changed Court garb.

We tried to be as accurate as possible. To be able to draw the houses and furnishings of the homes John Marshall lived in, my mother had to do a lot of research to find out what houses such as those Marshall and his family live in looked like. We also visited Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, to see in person what the houses of Marshall’s contemporaries looked like.

I read Marshall’s autobiography, and quite a few of his writings, but that turned out to be unproductive. Because I was writing for children, I had to use simpler, unaffected vocabulary, so I couldn’t write with Marshall’s voice in my ear.

You’d think putting together a 34-page book for kids would be a breeze, but it took two and a half years. We had to overcome production issues, and rewriting the text when the decision was made to gear the book toward 2nd and 3rd graders rather than 4th and 5th graders. There’s a big difference between those age groups!

Be Inkandescent: Will this book be part of a history series?

David Bruce Smith: Most likely, this book is the first in a series. The second book, if there is one, will be about John Adams.

So far, the response to our book has been positive. I hope more children and adults will eventually appreciate everything John Marshall did for the country, and that they will be inspired to want to know about other historic figures, too.

Be Inkandescent: You have two children. Are they interested at all in history?

My oldest child, my daughter, is a junior at George Washington University, and my youngest is now a plebe at the Naval Academy. My father always referred to himself as “a grateful American,” and I have passed that legacy on to my children. My son even said when he needed a car that it had to be American-made. All of us have a magnified awareness of the importance of our country’s history because of my father’s influence.

In the end, I’m just this guy who likes history and who wants to do my part to spread the word, especially to kids.

“American Hero: John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States” is available from Belle Isle Books, and at www.amazon.com.