History has guided America's greatest leaders, historian David McCullough says
The renowned historian David McCullough at Bucknell.
Posted: October 08, 2008
McCullough audio clips
- On teaching history
- On George Washington and American character
- What the past may say about the next president
- On a favorite moment in history
LEWISBURG, Pa. – America’s greatest leaders were avid readers and skilled writers who were guided by history’s lessons, David McCullough, one of the most honored historians in the country, said Tuesday night at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University.
McCullough, who was honored as the 2008 Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters at Bucknell, also received an honorary doctorate from the University before his giving talk, “A Conversation with David McCullough,” which was hosted by Bucknell assistant professor of history John Enyeart.
The author of John Adams, Truman and 1776, McCullough cited past presidents, including Adams, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who first were great learners before becoming great leaders. They read history and the classics to learn from the past, McCullough said, and their ability to lead and inspire reflected this, he said.
Student of history
“There is no president of the United States who ranks among the highest and most-esteemed of them who was not a student of history,” McCullough said. “There is no great leader that I know of in business, professions, politics, military who was not a great reader.”
And there is no such thing as a self-made person, McCullough continued. “We are all a result of those who have influenced us.” Today, however, too many Americans, especially among the younger generations, are increasingly “historically illiterate. And that’s a very dangerous situation,” he added.
“We have to know who we are and how we came to be the way we are,” McCullough said. “History is not just about dates and quotations. And it’s not just about politics, the military and social issues, though much of it of course is about that. It’s about everything. It’s about life history. It’s human. And we have to see it that way. We have to teach it that way. We have to read it that way. It’s about art, music, literature, money, science, love – the human experience.”
When we leave out any of these elements, we leave out huge parts of the human experience, “much of the flavor of history” and the “very basic elements of our story as a people,” McCullough said.
“You should know (history) because it will make you a better citizen, yes, and you should know it because you need to understand the human story. You need to understand cause and effect. You need to understand that no event is without a preceding event,” he said.
“It’s also true that what you don’t know can hurt you. It can hurt you a lot. And what our leaders don’t know can hurt us a lot. We need the best minds, the best-educated people possible in leadership roles in all aspects of society. And leaders cannot be ignorant of cause and effect and of the importance of responsibility and of integrity.”
With the upcoming presidential election and the issues the next president will face, such as the continuing financial crisis, it’s more important than ever to understand and learn from history. “We are in the soup right now. But we’ll be in the soup deeper still if we don’t understand our story, including, let’s say, the story of the Depression and how it came to happen.”
McCullough said anyone who runs for president should be required to take and pass a course in basic American history. At a basic level all of society should embrace history education, he added, suggesting that we should place greater emphasis on teaching teachers who know and love their subjects and on making history interesting.
“I think the love of learning is one of the greatest attainments anybody can achieve,” McCullough said. “And that’s what first-rate colleges and universities like Bucknell do best – to encourage, to bring on and make happen the love of learning.”
Qualifications for president
Asked as one point about the qualifications that presidents and vice presidents should have, McCullough explained that our great leaders of the past had reached high levels of success before being elected to the highest offices.
“Let me preface my remarks by saying that my field is dead politicians,” McCullough said to loud laughter from the audience. “I think of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt, all vice presidents who became president. I think about that a lot,” he said.
“You realize that those people were really quite prepared to become president. It matters enormously who the president will be. And it matters, in my view enormously, and I think most historians would agree with this, that the command of the language, the power of the spoken word, the power of eloquence, is of the utmost importance in the presidency.”
Authority to lead
These experiences and language abilities give our presidents the authority they need to lead us, McCullough said.
“The president has to be the voice of America,” he said. “The president has to be the teacher who explains to us why we have to do certain things, who calls upon us to maybe do a little better than we thought we might be capable of, to come together, to work for a common objective.”
Talk to air on WVIA
McCullough’s talk at Bucknell will air as a special presentation on WVIA-TV, the PBS affiliate covering central and northeastern Pennsylvania, beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29. It will air again at 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1. Check local listings for details.
McCullough, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Francis Parkman Prize. His works, including John Adams, Truman, 1776, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, and Brave Companions, have been called masterpieces of narrative history and exemplary works of scholarship into American life. John Adams, Truman and 1776 were all New York Times bestsellers.
McCullough has been an editor, essayist, teacher, and lecturer. He has hosted public television's "Smithsonian World" and "The American Experience" and narrated numerous documentaries, including "The Civil War" and "Napoleon."
Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, McCullough was educated there and at Yale, where he graduated with honors in English literature.
Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters
Bucknell established the annual Janet Weis Fellow in Contemporary Letters in 2002 to honor and recognize an individual who represents the highest level of achievement in the craft of writing within the realms of fiction, non-fiction, or biography. Previous recipients have been Toni Morrison, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates and Derek Walcott.
The Weis Fellowship was established through a grant from the Degenstein Foundation in honor of Janet Weis, author, civic leader, and philanthropist. Mrs. Weis is trustee emerita of the University. Mrs. Weis' late husband, Sigfried Weis, was chair of the Bucknell Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1988.
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