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 Noted historian took today’s schools to task

Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

By most accounts, he is the ultimate “student of history.”

That title rightly belongs to David McCullough, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a best-selling author who has been widely acclaimed as a “master of the art” of narrative history.

McCullough, a Yale alum, for years was a familiar presence on public television as host of “Smithsonian World” and “The American Experience.” He recently made several cameo appearances in the TV saga of “The Roosevelts” by award-winning storyteller Ken Burns.

Some seven years ago in Ann Arbor, I had the privilege of meeting McCullough following a lecture he delivered at Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus. His appearance served as a fitting prelude to a reception held in honor of John Dann, retiring director of the renowned Clements Library, which houses one of the nation’s greatest collections of original documents for the study of American history.

Author of “John Adams” and “1776,” McCullough presented his lecture, “Ambition to Excel” to an overflow crowd at Rackham, earning a standing ovation for his take on the current “state of affairs” in American education. In “1776,” McCullough drew on historical sources at the Clements Library to “piece together a portrait of American life and revolutionary character that critics have lauded as a brilliant and powerful rendering of the circumstances and people who shaped extraordinary events,” according to U-M officials.

Such painstaking – and eye-opening – research has been a “large part of the joy” of his writing career, McCullough said during his presentation.

“I have never undertaken a book on a subject that I knew much about,” McCullough acknowledged. “A lot of the fun is the chance to be a detective, to learn as much as possible about the subject at hand. I never cease to be amazed at how much I will learn when writing a new book. It’s truly an education in itself.”

His book on “The Johnstown Flood” was a case in point, McCullough indicated. The book traces the tragedy surrounding the May 31, 1889 catastrophe that killed more than 2,000 people when an earthen dam gave way, sending a wall of water thundering down a mountain into the booming coal-and-steel town in Pennsylvania. His knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the flood was as “basic” as the classic “mashed potatoes” story that explains – in visible and understandable terms – what happened that fateful day.

“It’s as easy as this,” said McCullough in putting his once rudimentary knowledge of the flood into proper perspective. “You have a plate loaded with mashed potatoes and gravy. You draw a line with your fork through the mashed potatoes, the gravy immediately flows into the peas, and that was the Johnstown Flood in a nutshell,” he said with a smile, drawing his own flood of laughter from the Rackham audience.

His initial quest to learn more about the Johnstown tragedy led him to snag a book off the library shelf. It proved to be an unsatisfying literary journey for McCullough, who in December 2006 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. He then decided to answer the rhetorical question, “Why don’t you write the book you’d like to read about the Johnstown Flood?”

He did, of course, mesmerizing readers with the first in a series of books that would become modern-day classics. He struck the literary mother lode with such novels as “The Great Bridge,” “The Path Between the Seas,” “Mornings on Horseback,” “Brave Companions,” and “Truman,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1,000-page biography of the 33rd president.

Throughout his presentation at Rackham that June 2007 day, McCullough lamented the lack of “basic historical knowledge” among high school and college students, claiming that the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” is pushing history “not only to the back burner, but right off the stove.” After an earlier speech at the University of Missouri, McCullough said he was dumbfounded when a student express­ed amaze­ment that, “Until I heard your talk today, I didn’t know that all 13 colonies were on the East Coast.”

“It was as if a bucket of cold water was dumped on me,” McCullough confessed, noting that he was equally dismayed when a student asked him if “John Adams and Harry Truman were the only presidents” he had ever interviewed. 

“We must laugh about this, so we don’t cry about it,” McCullough said. “We have to start talking to our children – and our grandchildren – about the importance of history. It is a subject that is alive. History is about time and human characters. It’s not about the past. It is an inexhaustible storehouse of ideas.”

All of the nation’s “great leaders” have been “students of history,” according to McCullough, rattling off the names of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Truman. 

“They never stopped reading,” he said. “They never stopped exploring. They were committed to learning life’s lessons – in history, in art, in architecture, in music, in literature.”

Of course, McCullough’s road to literary stardom was “not paved in gold,” he admitted. It was, however, heavily influenced by teachers and professors who had an appreciation for the “big picture” in education, instructing him “not to get bogged down by mindless memorization” of names and dates.

“We need to get back to requiring courses in history and foreign language for graduation,” he said. “Students need to get used to the idea that there are some things in life that you have to do whether you like it or not. I believe that young people want structure, that they want rules and regulations in their life.”

Otherwise, said Mc­Cullough, we run the risk of “dumbing down the language” and the “learning curve” for a generation bordering on becoming “historically illiterate.”

In short, please perish the thought.

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