David McCullough Talks Confederate Statues, Obama, and New Book

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In a society that increasingly revolves more around technology, author and historian David McCullough delivered a countercultural message on Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of the humanities. He didn’t take sides in the debate over tearing down Confederate statues, but he was adamant about what statues we should be putting up: Teachers.

One of the country’s leading public intellectuals, McCullough has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his biographies on John Adams and Harry Truman, and in 2006 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He has addressed a joint session of Congress, a rare distinction for a private citizen. On Tuesday, for its 10th anniversary, the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics hosted McCullough, the speaker at the first Clough Colloquium in 2006.

McCullough’s latest work is The American Spirit, a collection of speeches from throughout his public life that examine the character and ideals that are distinctly American. These essays  emphasize the lessons that can be drawn from the nation’s shared past in finding a way forward. The book also contains the speech “The Love of Learning,” which was given at Boston College’s Commencement in 2008.  

McCullough began by cracking a few jokes, recalling the story of how he has his wife read aloud the rough drafts of his books. One time she was reading an excerpt from his book on Theodore Roosevelt, and stopped, telling him a sentence didn’t seem to read well. McCullough remembers being dismissive.

“And the book went off to my publisher, and in six months or so it got published,” he said. “And it got fine reviews, including one in the New York Review of Books … and I was very pleased with it until I read near the end of the review where it said, ‘Sometimes, however, Mr. McCullough does not write very well. Consider this sentence….’”

It was the sentence his wife pointed out at the beginning.

“So I’ve been paying attention to her ever since,” he said.

McCullough talked about his thoughts on the controversy surrounding Confederate statues. He did not address the current debate, but instead wondered what type of future monuments should be dedicated.

“I’m more interested in who are we going to build statues to, not just which we are going to tear down,” he said. “Which are we going to raise, and why? And I think, and I feel strongly about this, and there is no place I would rather be saying it than on a campus like this, I think that the most important people in our society and it has been so for a long time … are our teachers.”

From McCullough’s perspective, very little is accomplished alone, and the image of the self-made man or woman is a myth, for people are the result of those who have shaped them. Some of the most important people in a young person’s formative years are teachers, and they do not get enough credit. McCullough gave a familiar example.

“Maple Hefty is credited as being the teacher that changed Barack Obama’s life. He said: ‘She taught me I had something to say, not in spite of my differences, but because of them.’ It changed that boy’s life,” McCullough said.

Transitioning from the importance of teachers, McCullough stressed the essential idea that an education should focus on the humanities.

He cited the example of the Wright Brothers, who never took a single course in science or technology.

“One of the most difficult technical problems of all time, for humans beings to take to the air in motor-powered machines, was solved by two young men who never went to college,” he said. “They grew up in a house that had no heat, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no telephone, but it was a house full of books. And they read every book that was in that house.”

History, English, and literature are essential to a good education, even in the Information Age.

“Information isn’t learning,” McCullough said. “If information was learning, then if you memorized the world almanac you’d be educated. But if you memorized the world almanac, you wouldn’t be educated, you’d be weird.”

For McCullough, history teaches an infinite amount of lessons, all of which are essential to leadership. He referenced Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who was once asked if had a good education. Marshall responded, “I did not because we had no history.”

McCullough wants to move beyond the history that is often highlighted: wars and politics.

“Politics and the military are important, but they are not the whole story,” he said. “You can’t leave out our writers, and our artists, and our musicians, and our playwrights.”

McCullough expressed concern about the attitude of today’s students, who he perceives to be focused on outcomes.

“They don’t seem to ask any questions,” he said. “They are so preoccupied in having the answers for passing the test, or to qualify for wherever they want to go to college or graduate school that they don’t ask questions, and asking questions is how you find things out. Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages.”

“You will never, ever, not meet someone who knows something you don’t know,” he added, “no matter their station in life.”

Featured Image by Steven Everett / Heights Editor