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David McCullough address

February 15, 2007

Our university is now 150 years old, and as part of the celebration I had the good fortune to hear an address by historian David McCullough.  He is author of many books of historical narrative, Pulitzer prize winner, and according to Wikipedia “holds 31 honorary degrees”.  As of today, that would be 32. 

Speakers of that calibre are usually worth rearranging your schedule for and this was no exception. He spoke passionately about history education, about leadership and perspective with a depth and insight you don’t hear from most podiums.  I’ve read a few of his books, and we even visited Johnstown, PA to travel the flood path after reading The Johnstown Flood (which was a fascinating trip)  He’s big heat, that David McCullough.  To the best of my recollection, here are a few random points of his address:

“Eighty percent of American history teachers have neither a history major or minor.  You can teach subjects you don’t know; it can be done.  But there are two problems.  First, you are very dependent on the book.  And if you have not seen history textbooks lately, they’re terrible; politically-correct mush. I know; I’ve seen them.  I’ve lifted them. You shouldn’t give a kid any book you wouldn’t read yourself.  The second problem is that you are teaching what you don’t love, because you can’t love what you don’t know any more than you can love a person you don’t know.”

“Education is more than facts and dates.  If it weren’t you could just memorize the Farmer’s Almanac and you’d be educated. But you wouldn’t be educated; you’d just be weird.”

“People in the past didn’t live in the past; they lived in the present, just as we do.  Adams, Jefferson, Washington, they didn’t walk around saying; “Isn’t this fascinating, living in the past?  Look at our quaint costumes!”

The original chamber of Congress had a sculpture of Clio visible from the podium, to remind Congressmen that what they were doing, was for the ages, for history.  You know what Congresspeople see when they look up from the podium now?  Television cameras.”

Let’s not ever measure humanity only by someone’s failings.  It is also part of humanity to attain, to achieve, to overcome.  History is a source of strength when things are going badly.  It is a source of inspiration, and of pleasure.”

“A simpler time?  Who are we kidding?  Life in the 18th century beat people up.  You could see it in their faces.”

“Today we think of transportation and communication as different things.  In the 18th century, they were the same thing.  Modern communications dilutes personal responsibility.  You couldn’t ‘call somebody’ – you made a decision and lived with the consequences.”

A year from now, at the end of our university’s Sesquicentennial celebration, the keynote speaker will be Ray Kurzweil.  The celebration begins with a famous historian and ends with a famous futurist.  It will be interesting to see if the latter can deliver as much value as the former.

(Bonus point: the university symphony played a stirring piece I’d never heard before.  Turned out to be a specially commissioned symphony by composer David Maslanka, performed for the first time.  Neat.)

Categories: Education
  1. February 16, 2007 at 13:05 | #1

    Man you have no idea how bad I wanted to go.  But I was doing two things I love.  1. Teaching 2. Teaching the topic of Linux

  2. jdallen
    February 16, 2007 at 15:58 | #2

    Yeah, I read once somewhere that as long as most high school kids call their history teacher “coach”, we are not going to have a whole lot of people graduating with a good knowledge of history.

  3. February 16, 2007 at 21:47 | #3

    It had to have been a very interesting (and for teachers attending) a very inspiring message.  I wish all teachers had this passion to learn their subjects and teach them well. Thank you for allowing us to share part of your evenings festivities

  4. zilch
    February 17, 2007 at 04:57 | #4

    What McCullough said about teachers needing to love their material is spot on.  Up until the university, I never had a history teacher who made history come alive, and I thought (I’m sure most of the students thought) that history had to be one of the most boring subjects imaginable, rather than one of the most interesting and important ones.

    If I had my druthers, I’d rearrange the school curricula a bit: drop, say, Analytic Geometry as a required subject (neither of my kids will ever use it), and add Environmental Studies and Lessons from History.  As Santayana said, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.

  5. Tom Kauffman
    February 17, 2007 at 11:17 | #5

    Thanks, George, for letting us eavesdrop on the festivities at ISU. As a History Major in college I learned some really fascinating things. If I ever find any spare time, I may try to read some of McCullough’s work.

  6. February 17, 2007 at 20:11 | #6

    drop, say, Analytic Geometry as a required subject (neither of my kids will ever use it)

    Banish the though! Don’t you know that it teaches reasoning? Every kid should learn not only advanced algebra, but calculus too!

  7. February 18, 2007 at 11:30 | #7

    Telling my kids that higher math teaches reasoning is exactly what I did to try to awaken some enthusiasm for the subject.  Not only did this approach not work, but I’m afraid both kids have no chance to come to love mathematics as I did, after being forced to study esoteric stuff they will never use.

    How much math kids should be forced to learn is a difficult question.  I’ll go along with algebra and calculus, but analytic geometry is way over the top, especially considering the fact that the basic stuff often gets shoved out of the brain to make room for the higher stuff, as I’ve seen with my own two kids.

    Of course, there are kids who hated math and were later glad they had to learn it, just like there are kids who hated music lessons and went on to be great musicians.  I would bet, though, that the number of kids permanently turned off these subjects is higher.  I don’t have the numbers for that claim, however.

  8. February 18, 2007 at 12:28 | #8

    I wonder if the problem isn’t how high the level, but how it is taught.  I strongly suspect that the “right way” to teach math to kids, is an unsolved problem.

  9. February 18, 2007 at 13:03 | #9

    How math is taught is certainly important.  Both my kids were math-damaged by having a teacher who screamed at the class.  But just as obviously, there has to be an upper limit on what kinds of math kids should be required to take.

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