David McCullough Discusses American History and Writing Biographies

David McCullough Exclusive Interview With Book Help Web

David McCullough is one of our country's best-loved historians. Every one of his books have made the bestseller lists and have never been out of print. He's written on topics such as the Johnstown Flood, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal. He's also written much-beloved biographies on such people as John Adams and Harry Truman. His recent 1776 was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

David McCullough photo used with permission.He's a man who is passionate about history and all of the humanities. He's an enthusiastic advocate of a liberal arts education, saying that our future depends on our ability to develop leaders who are well-grounded in our past. It's a theme he hits upon many times during his lectures throughout the country.

His commitment to writing stories that are compelling and engaging have brought American history to an ever-growing public both through his books and through the multiple television shows that he consults on or narrates.

Prior to a recent lecture, McCullough generously donated an hour of his time to talk about his work and the importance of history to our country.

Book Help Web: You do a lot of lecturing. What is the theme of your lectures this year?

David McCullough: If I can single out one theme that is most important to me, it is about history and leadership. It's about the ways in which a sense of history affects leadership. It really is a necessity for leaders in all fields to have a sense of history. My case in point is the leadership shown by George Washington and others during the Revolutionary War, including those who were not serving in the army, Adams and others. I try to convey to the audiences I speak to the sad state of the teaching of history in our schools, the fact that we are raising young Americans who are by and large woefully ignorant of American history. They are historically illiterate. This is not just something that I've observed. It's not to say that there aren't marvelous people teaching history in all parts of the country. We are falling down in how effectively we're training our young teachers, our new teachers, and we're falling down quite seriously in how we as parents and grandparents are raising our children to understand the importance and appeal of American history in particular and all of history in general.

That's my strong feeling. I'm pleased to say that every time I've talked about this, the audience has acted favorably and often vociferously. The problem with American education is us. We're not doing enough to live up to the old adage that education begins at home. We need to take our children and grandchildren to historical sites. I have five children and eighteen grandchildren, so I'm very much involved personally. We've got to spend more time talking about our story as a people and a country with our children. We've got to speak enthusiastically and encouragingly about the books that we've read that have meant a lot to us at various stages whether in grade school, high school, college, or last week. We have to share our enthusiasm, share our love of reading. We need to put good books in their hands if need be. Read books aloud by all means. We have to take our children and grandchildren to historic sites and not wait for the school trips, for the school trips might not happen.

What's so important about doing that is for your youngster to see how much those places and those experiences mean to you as a parent, as their father, their mother, grandfather, grandmother. That's very important. We know that the youngster who sees the father who loves baseball figures out that baseball is something to love. The same is true with learning.

We have to restore dinner conversation, sitting down together and talking together about something other than sports and television. People tell me that I don't understand, that there isn't time for that today. I find that unacceptable, particularly when the average family spends four hours a day watching television. I think people will readily agree that the dinner table conversation is a great part of one's education growing up.

Some children grow up and some are raised. We have to get aback to raising our children with what we think is important to learn, and not leave it to the teachers. Some people look upon teachers as glorified babysitters who take care of our children while we're doing the important work. There is no more important work being done by any of us than by teachers. They are the most important people in our society. No one is doing anything that matters more in the long run.

Gen. George Marshall around the time he was appointed secretary of state was asked if he'd had a good education at the Virginia Military Academy. He said no, because he'd had no history. Harry Truman said the only new thing in the world is the history you don't know.

I've had years of experience lecturing or teaching as a guest at countless colleges and universities. I find everywhere I go this astonishing ignorance of our history. The kind of thing that at one time you used to learn in grade school. This has been substantiated with numerous surveys.

There is progress being made and progress can be made. That's one of the best things about this problem. It really can be solved. We have to do a much better job (and it is being done in a number of our colleges) teaching the prospective teachers. In my view, the simplest, most important, first step is to go back to a basic liberal arts education where you have to have a major. Many teachers are graduating with a degree in education and had no real major. They're assigned to teach botany or history without much knowledge of the subject at all. It's hard to teach something you know. It's impossible to love something you don't know as impossible it is to love someone you don't know. People who really inspire and encourage you the most are those who love what they're teaching. If you're lucky in your course through the educational system, you encounter those teachers all the way.

If the teacher is not very knowledgeable of the subject, they are far more dependent on the textbook. While there are notable textbooks, by and large they are boring and deadly, which is bad for the teachers, let alone the students. There are so many wonderful books that students could be reading, biographies, histories, things that are the literature of history. I don't think any student should be made to read anything that isn't well-written. I won't have them read anything that I don't love myself.

There was a great to-do for about 25 years about how young people today don't like to read and don't like books, so you have to dumb down the vocabulary, increase the number of illustrations, so forth and so on. It was conventional wisdom in academics and among publishers. Then along came Harry Potter and blew all that misconception out of the water. Of course, young people will read something if it is appealing, if it's compelling. They're human beings. I think by nature, we really instinctively love history. Our great stories are all once upon a time. We want to hear what our parents remember from childhood. we want to go to movies that are somewhat historical in nature. The two most popular movies of all time: Gone with the Wind and Titanic. That's not just coincidental.

There's no mystery about making history appealing. Barbra Tuchman said it: "Tell stories."

BHW: Most people today speak rather disparagingly of a liberal arts education, saying that a person with an English degree is fit only to flip burgers. You though have credited your humanities education as the foundation of your success. Why do you think there has been an evolution away from a liberal arts education and toward a technical training mindset?

David McCullough: We have to have a passion for learning. We have to learn about who we are and how we came to be the way we are, why we are the way we are. We need to absorb the great words and the literature of our language. We are living in a world where we have to know the languages of other people. Yet, you can graduate today having had no history at all and no foreign language. Who are we kidding? I've read about what the leaders of a great variety of fields majored in. It's history or English or botany. It's everything. The youngster benefits who is guided on the idea that you major in the subject you really love or you major in the subject by which you learn to express yourself in writing or on your feet. If you don't you're doing yourself a disservice.

Public speaking ought to be required in every college, every university. Young people come out inarticulate because they've never had to stand up in front of people and express themselves. If you can express yourselvf in writing, you're way ahead of people in employment. I say this with a strong conviction. Something that doesn't come across is how competitive life is beyond school.

BHW: In an interview with Bruce Cole at NEH, you said, "To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is." The books you write capture that passion. How would you encourage others to experience history as pleasure, as a form of enriching entertainment?

David McCullough: That was one of my favorite interviews. He recorded what I said exactly. That's one of the great things about radio.

That's my creed. It really is, word for word. It's true. If we deny this field, this aspect of the human experience, we're cheating our children the same way as if we denied them music, or art, or theater. They're going to miss a huge part of the enjoyment of learning and of life.

And they will miss the point that they are part of history and how they measure up will be part of history. That's so important. You go into a high school and you see pictures of former star athletes, the ones who broke the record in some track and field event, or the football team that won the championship. That's history. That's putting up an example, a reminder, of attainment, high attainment, to encourage, to motivate those who are in the school at the moment. History does exactly that. You get an example of courage, of genius, of resourcefulness. You get examples of tenacity, and of the reverse: Examples of terrible mistakes, injustices, suffering, needless suffering, and so forth.

Samuel Eliot Morrison once said history teaches us to behave. There's a lot to that.

I think a society can be as adversely affected by spells of amnesia as can an individual. We hear again and again that we have very short-term memories. That's a daily manifestation of a larger problem.

The American Alumni Council, a non-profit in Washington, surveyed seniors at the 50 best colleges and university in the country. The results were dismal. I remember one question in particular. It asked who was the commanding American general at one of the major Revolutionary War battles. The correct answer was George Washington. It was multiple choice. The number one response was Douglas MacArthur.

I could tell you endless examples from my own experience. They make you laugh but only because otherwise you would cry.

You wonder how can this be? It shouldn't be. You shouldn't be allowed to graduate from Yale University today having had no history today whatever. We have to go back to some basics. There are only four or five institutions which have a required course on the American Constitution. Three of those are military academies. Too many students don't know what the Constitution is, what the Bill of Rights is. Ask them to name any of the Bills of Rights and they can't do it.

BHW: Are there particular historical topics which hold no appeal to you? Which you would avoid even if asked to research or write about?

David McCullough: Sure. I'm asked often if I would like to do something on the Civil War. No, the years I spent working with Ken Burns on the television were enough on that subject for me. It's been so repeatedly done and often very well. I'm not sure I could add an awful more to it. I'm more inclined to do things which haven't been done much. I like breaking new ground, attempting something no one has done, or not in a very long time.

I felt that way all along. There was no definitive biography of Harry Truman. John Adams was hardly touched compared to Jefferson or Washington. There were shelves of books about them, but for Adams there were maybe six or seven over the past years that were full biographies.

I should point out too, I strongly empathize with students or aspiring writers. Even a subject that you think everything has been found or written about, that's not so. You will find if you look, if you dig, you will find things people have not seen. You will have something — if not brand new — refreshing or different to say.

BHW: How long does it take you to research a book?

David McCullough: I'm a rewriter, not just a writer. I work hard at the writing.

I think if history isn't well-written, if it isn't compelling, if it isn't part of a literate man or woman's life, it will die. It shouldn't just be the private franchise of academic specialists. I think that the popularity of many books of history and biographies is a very healthy sign. It's interesting that the knowledge among students of American history and most conspicuously among students in our higher institutions of learning is very low. Interest in history among the public is very high. Look at the unexpected and absolute success of the History Channel, which many people thought would never succeed. Look at the Ken Burns Civil War series, most popular show ever to appear on public television.

Another example is The Da Vinci Code. It's a novel and should be taken in that spirit, but it's historic in its overall approach as are other, more serious works of fiction. At Cornell University I taught a survey course from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. The first book I had them read was a novel called The Killer Angels, which is a terrific novel. I've read it two or three times. My thought was if this doesn't get them, nothing will. They loved it. There's nothing wrong with the response of our young men and women to good writing. They respond. They like it. I'm tremendously cheered by the number of students and young people in their 20s or 30s who come to my lectures and who speak very generously about my books. That pleases me as much as anything.

BHW: Do you hire researchers and who do you use?

David McCullough: I did all my own research absolutely without help until the Truman biography. There was so much material to cope with. I had the help of a young professional researcher who has helped me off and on and much to my advantage. He does research for a lot of people. He's near Washington and can cover those wonderful treasure houses, archives, and treasure houses.

BHW: What is the most important part of the research process to you? What most helps you dig the deepest?

David McCullough: I think once one has read a few general overall studies or books of the subject you're undertaking that as quickly as possible one ought to get directly into the primary sources: the letters, the diaries, the record books, the unpublished memoirs, maps, battle plans, notebooks, and so forth. You need to get to know the protagonist and get to know the people. That's what history is about: people, life, human nature. It's why it is so important for students to have that opportunity. It's about human nature. It's about the unexpected in life, the tragedies, the blunderings of good people out of short-sightedness, the cruelties perpetrated by ignorance. You can't avoid history. You're part of it.

BHW: Which library is your favorite?

David McCullough: I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. I hesitate to say one favorite and have another say, "I thought ours was his favorite." I would have to say the Library of Congress. It's the greatest library in our country. I visit many, many libraries. I've depended on libraries all over the country and abroad.

That's another thing students need to learn before they get to college, how to use a great library. They can do an awful lot on the Internet. It's astonishing. It's thrilling what they can find on the Internet. But there's an enormous amount that isn't on the Internet. It's in books, original diaries, old maps, books, in the stacks. When you go back in the stacks looking for something you wind up finding two or three other things that you didn't know to look for that are of great importance. I love doing the research. I'm seldom happier than when working in a great library and learning from those who are there. You don't just learn form the collections. You learn from the librarians. You don't do that on the Internet.

BHW: What has been the main difference for you in telling a story about a person, a biography, and telling the story of an event?

David McCullough: Writing history and writing biography is quite different. In a biography you can't stray from your subject very far. It's always that protagonist and the arc of that life is the spine of the story of the book. Things happening beyond the life of that individual may be affecting the life of that individual. Going off on a tangent is a luxury that isn't part of the form. Whereas if you're writing history, you can move from one person to another. You can shift the point of view, the scenes, the setting, the time, much more freely. I love both. I hugely enjoy writing both history and biography. I'm certainly glad I attempted both.

BHW: Thank you for telling the stories of our history and making them so appealing. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I think that I would like to make a strong endorsement of all those good people who make sure that we continue to have public libraries. They're there for everybody including people who can't afford perhaps to go to college or to have books of their own. I think that our public library system is one of the greatest institutions we have. It's pure democracy. Everyone is welcome and it's free to all. We should never take our public libraries for granted. No other country in the world has such a system. We should be very proud of it and actively support it.

I've depended on libraries. I'm not affiliated with any college or university so I'm one of the millions of beneficiaries of our public libraries. I don't know that I could ever pay back all that I owe to public libraries and the Library of Congress and many university libraries to which I've been welcomed.

Something that always gets cheers in my lectures is that there are still more public libraries in this country than there are McDonalds.

-- B. Redman

 

 

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