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Friday, April 30, 2010

David McCullough Lecture

I went to a lecture given by David McCullough last night. It was terrific! I'm putting my notes in here so I can keep a record of what I remember about what he said.

He said his books have been a joy, a journey, and a detective story to him. Someone asked him once, "What presidents of the United States besides John Adams and Harry S. Truman have you interviewed?" The audience roared with laughter. Appearances notwithstanding, he said, he has never met Mr. Truman nor Mr. Adams, and in fact, he has never known much of anything about the subjects of his books before beginning work on them.

He was an English major in college (hurrah! I can take heart from this). He had no experience in historical research. He went to his university library and asked for information on a subject. The reference librarian said, "Of course you have consulted the DAB." He said, oh of course, and went back to his table and sat down. What in the world was the DAB and why was he supposed to already know about it? He swallowed his pride and went back to the reference librarian. The DAB is the Dictionary of American Biography.

Journals and diaries are very important. Read them in the original if you can. You may find things in the original that aren't in the transcriptions, no matter how good the transcriptions are. He tells his students that if they ever have any flitting wish for immortality, start keeping a diary (on paper). When you feel it's time for the curtain to come down, donate it to the Library of Congress or somewhere that scholars will use it, and it will be quoted for hundreds of years because it will be the only diary in existence from our time period. Nobody keeps a diary anymore. [People write blogs, like this one, huh?]

Several platitudes that do not exist:
  • The self-made man or woman. No such thing. We are all products of the influence of others.
  • The foreseeable future. No such thing! Nobody can see the future. If you guess right, you guess right.
  • The past. No such thing. People always live in the present, their own present. To understand those who have lived before, you must understand the present they knew. You must read the books they read, know the politics they knew, understand the world they lived in. In the 18th Century, everybody knew and quoted Alexander Pope (especially the Essay on Man, with the quote "Act well your part; therein honor lies"), Samuel Johnson, John Dryden, Addison, Steele, Swift, and others.
  • Gone but not forgotten. If someone is not forgotten, that person is not really gone. If we talk about and quote and keep remembering people, they are still with us, and we should thank God for those to whom we are indebted.

We must not let a creeping amnesia take over our country regarding the great leaders and lessons of our history. The fault begins at home. We must teach our history through conversation and by example. Dinner time conversation is a great place to begin.

David McCullough's father voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and afterward came to think that FDR was the worst thing that ever happened to the country. His grandmother, on the other hand, thought that next to Jesus Christ, FDR was the greatest person who ever lived. Every night at the dinner table they discussed their opinions. Both were growing deaf. The children around the table never forgot a point in the two opinions.

The great educator/psychologist (who influenced Fred Rogers) Margaret MacFarland said attitude was the most important element of teaching, and that attitude is caught, not taught. So share what you love. And treat teachers better.

He talked about John Adams, about Charles Sumner, and about Elihu Washburn, and about one or two individual events of their youth or young adulthood that shaped their careers and lives. Charles Sumner, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, observed black students and realized that the distance between free blacks and whites in the United States was artificial, created by education, and not the natural order of things. He became the leading abolitionist in the United States Senate and was almost beaten to death on the Senate floor by the senator from North Carolina after one of his speeches in 1856.

Elihu Washburn served 16 years in Congress and was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to France on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, which was a fiasco for the French. He stayed in Paris after thousands of Americans left, because he felt it was his duty to look after the 150 or so U.S. citizens who were left there, and even after they were surrounded, he looked after not only his own citizens, but those of other countries, almost single-handedly preventing further bloodshed and earning the description of being the greatest ambassador the U.S. ever had. His diary is preserved in the Library of Congress.

Nobody in public life these days dare keep a diary.

It's sad that nobody seems to write personal letters any more. Nobody seems to work things out on paper the way the great letter-writers of the past did. These things are priceless, and they are preserved in our public libraries for our perusal.

Take heart for the state of culture in the United States today: there are more public libraries in the country than there are MacDonalds drive-thru restaurants.

Mr. McCullough describes himself as a short-range pessimist and a long-range optimist. Through our studies of our history, we stay in touch with who we are as a people; we discover why we are the way we are. There are so many more stories to learn, so many more stories to tell. We will never get bored. Let's be involved.

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