Monday, November 17, 2008

David McCullough: thanks for the history lesson

It's a good time to be a sponge.

On November 4, one of my U.S. senators, Barack Obama, blazed a trail into history. This biracial man -- part black, part white -- will be our 44th president as a result of his solid victory over GOP candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona. For Obama -- and our country -- this was no less than a monumental achievement. I am proud to bear witness. I am grateful to be an American living at a time when I can take all of this in, to absorb the historical significance to its utmost.

The Sunday before the presidential election, writer/historian David McCullough addressed a filled-to-the-brim house at symphony center in Chicago. McCullough was in town as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, to accept the 2008 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.

McCullough spoke of Obama in an admiring, respectful tone, predicting the junior U.S. senator from Illinois would win in a landslide. "Oh, no," I thought, "Don't say that. You'll jinx him." I don't know that the final tally, in terms of both the Electoral College and the popular vote, could really be termed a landslide. However, the Obama victory margin was substantial, and the win, indeed, big -- in ever so many ways.

It was my first opportunity to hear McCullough in person. White-haired, tall and articulate, he was a towering presence. I also was surprised and impressed that he chose to forego the lectern, standing to face the audience from the stage. I was looking for inspiration, and McCullough delivered.

If, as McCullough said, history is a study of human nature, then he has been a more-than-apt pupil.

Even if you have never liked (or given much thought to) history, hearing David McCullough will convert you. I'd almost bet money on it. It strikes me that for McCullough, reading, writing, teaching, history, U.S. presidents -- and more -- must be inextricably linked. His excitement about history, about America, was infectious. His delivery was eloquent and thoughtful. Without a doubt, McCullough commands a vast range with respect to our nation's historical and literary landscape.

Noting, "We tend to characterize our presidents," McCullough imparted an array of fascinating tidbits (or, what some people may call factoids). For example, did you know:

-- President John Adams's first job was as a teacher
-- John Adams and his wife Abigail alone exchanged more than a thousand letters
-- John Adams read Cervantes over and over again
-- President Harry Truman read Latin for pleasure

These are but a small portion of the incredible fount of knowledge that is David McCullough.

If adults want youngsters to appreciate history, they must talk to children about it, take them to historic places, "Show them how much it means to you," McCullough advised. He also called for greater appreciation of the members of the teaching profession, not only in terms of pay, but of recognition. Parents should be talking to the instructors of their children, and not just at parent-teacher conferences. "We should be asking (teachers), 'What can we do to help you?'" Additionally, he advocated better training of our country's educators. "There is no more important group in society than our teachers."

McCullough covered a massive amount of ground. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or space here to present it all. Hopefully I have whetted your appetite to read one or more of his books, or to look up a bit of history. We don't all have the insight of a David McCullough. However, we don't have to. We can start to value history from wherever we are, right now.

In the space of a week, I had the opportunity to observe two remarkable Americans, one in person, and one on television. We can learn much from published authors David McCullough and Barack Obama.

I intend to be a human sponge for quite a while.

Posted by Gwen LaCosse


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reminder about McCullough and his talents. Doris Kearns Goodwin has been in the news so much with her Abraham Lincoln book "Team of Rivals" that Obama is studying.

Linda K. said...

Once upon a time I was a history major and I have to say thanks to Gwen for reminding me that I need to do some brush-up reading. How many of us criticized the candidates, during this lengthy election period, for their lack of knowledge when we would have flunked the history (and geography) tests ourselves? I think I'll grab a David McCullough book.

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