A Sense of History
Remembering the past prepares us for the future says historian and Pulitzer-Prize winning author, David McCullough
AMERICAN HISTORY AND ITS RELEVANCE for today were the themes of historian and author David McCullough’s presentation at the 10th annual Seattle Pacific University Downtown Business Breakfast on April 25, 2006. Introducing McCullough at the events which drew nearly 1,200 business and community leaders to Seattle’s Westin Hotel was Chi-Dooh Skip Li ’66, partner at the law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry. “When was the last time you saw a history book No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list?” Li asked the audience. In fact, two books have held that distinction, and McCullough wrote both of them: 1776 topped the list in 2005, John Adams in 2001.
Li asked a second question: “How many historical biographies go through 38 printings in four years?” Answer: so far just one, McCullough’s John Adams. Here’s another question Li could have asked: “What writer of history is the recipient of nearly 70 coveted literary awards?” The answer, of course, is McCullough. Topping the list are two National Book Awards, one in 1978 for The Path Between the Seas and one in 1982 for Mornings on Horseback, and two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1993 for Truman and one in 2002 for John Adams.
Why so many honors? McCullough is an eloquent writer and a meticulous researcher ; his bibliography for 1776, which tells the story of one momentous year in our nation’s history, runs 23 pages. But there is another reason McCullough’s writings “dominate American history,” as historian and author William M. Fowler Jr. writes in The Christian Science Monitor: “What is truly remarkable about David McCullough is his eagerness as an author to allow the actors in the drama of history to speak for themselves. But to let documents speak, the historian must step back. This requires an act of modesty and humility often lacking.”
McCullough’s humility sometimes prompts him to resist even being called a historian. He is, he says, an “amateur historian,” a “writer who loves history.” He writes what he wants to read. “I have always chosen the subjects that interest me,” he told faculty, staff, students, and visitors on April 25 at an afternoon lecture on campus. And, using as his only tool of the trade a 1940s typewriter, he has been writing narrative history prolifically for 40 years.
During that time, McCullough says he has witnessed a sharp decline in the historical literacy of his fellow Americans. The critical importance of what he calls “a sense of history” to America’s future as a nation was a theme he sounded vigorously at the Business Breakfast. To make his point, he noted that the founding fathers were highly educated in classical history and understood their world through the lens of the past. And he quoted his late friend and Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel Boorstin: ‘Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.”
“We are raising generations of cut flowers, and trying to plant them,” McCullough argued. “We are doing an absolutely dreadful job of teaching history to our children. It’s apparent in studies that have been done, and it’s certainly apparent to somebody who lectures at universities and colleges as I do.”
The result, McCullough contends, is that Americans no longer know the story of their own country. “I’m dismayed so often by people who profess to love their country, and yet have no interest in the country’s history, or know almost nothing about it,” he said. “It would be as if you were in love with a woman or man and you had no interest about where he came from, or who her parents were, or where he was educated, or her interests. Politicians do it all the time.”
One of the few private citizens to have addressed a joint session of Congress, McCullough has championed historical literacy in venues across the nation, including the White House, and abroad. An essayist, teacher, and member of the National Council for History Education, he has appeared on television as host of Smithsonian World and The American Experience, and narrator of numerous documentaries, including The Civil War and Napoleon.
“I have wanted to bring David McCullough to our Business Breakfast and campus for a number of years,” says SPU President Philip Eaton, who hosted the downtown event. “We need our storytellers, as a culture, as organizations, as a nation. David is one of the great storytellers of our time.”
The benefits of knowing our country’s history are many, McCullough told his audience at the Westin: “Will it make you a better citizen? Of course it will. Will it make you more appreciative of all the blessings that we have in this country? Of course it will. Will it remind you that there is no such thing as a self-made man or a self-made woman, because we’re all the beneficiaries of those who’ve encouraged us, or guided us, or inspired us, or who have written the laws, created the freedoms, said the great remarks, composed the great symphonies, painted the pictures, written the poetry, who lived long before we do? Will it show us that?