David McCullough address
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.)