2014-01-30 / Community

David McCullough emphasizes importance of studying American history and reading

By Cary Ginell


David McCullough 
Courtesy of Sue Swan David McCullough Courtesy of Sue Swan If the U.S. ever designates an American “historian laureate,” David McCullough should be the first person offered the honor.

McCullough, who appeared as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series at the Fred Kavli Theatre on Jan. 13, is one of the most passionate advocates for the study of American history.

The author of Pulitzer Prizewinning biographies of U. S. presidents John Adams and Harry Truman, McCullough expressed concern over Americans losing their sense of history, observing that, as a nation, we have become “historically illiterate.”

He recalled one query he received during his travels, when he was asked innocently, “Aside from Truman and Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?”

At the age of 80, McCullough types on a 1940 Royal manual typewriter at his home in West Tisbury on the island of Martha’s Vineyard near Boston. He disdainfully rejects using a computer to write, preferring the tactile joys of hitting the carriage return and hearing the little “ding” of the instrument’s bell.

“On a typewriter, if you hit the wrong button, everything won’t disappear,” he said, evoking laughter from the audience.

McCullough blames Americans’ lack of interest in history on the way it is taught in our schools, with its reliance on the memorization of impersonal dates and quotations.

“History is human,” he said, “and it should not be taught as if it were costume pageantry.”

Despite his views on how history is taught, Mc- Cullough values teachers as “the most important people in our society.”

He encouraged parents to talk about history at the dinner table and to take children to historical sites and, most importantly, the public library.

“It is free! They are the cathedrals of our era. This should be mandatory,” he said.

McCullough decried the lack of books in America’s homes, noting that “we have become a nation of spectators,” watching sports, playing video games and being entertained instead of educating ourselves.”

He loves having books surround him in his home.

“Books are the furniture of the mind,” he said.

McCullough, who is writing a book on the Wright Brothers, talked passionately about Adams and Truman, who had many things in common, including failing in life before eventually acceding to the presidency.

McCullough said Truman was an honest, hardworking man who symbolized the average American, hailing from the appropriately named Independence, Mo. But it was Truman’s strength of character that Mc- Cullough admired most.

He said Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur because it was the right thing to do, and made all the hard decisions of his presidency despite the lowest approval rating of any chief executive.

In a Q- and- A session after his talk, McCullough said that at one time in his life he thought about being an actor but changed his mind when he realized that if you are not employed, “you can’t sit home and act,” so he became a writer instead.

He advised parents to take their children to the many historical sites in our country, including Williamsburg (where much of his seven-part HBO miniseries on John Adams was filmed), Boston, the St. Louis Arch and the multitude of Civil War battlefields.

He still marvels at architecture (“It encourages questions”), especially the Brooklyn Bridge, the topic of his book “The Great Bridge.”

McCullough spoke highly of actor Tom Hanks, who served as executive producer of the “John Adams” miniseries. He recalled meeting Hanks for the first time in an Idaho coffee shop, where the actor brought along a copy of McCullough’s Adams biography, meticulously indexed with Post-it notes filled with questions he needed answered.

“ And he loves typewriters!” McCullough proudly proclaimed.

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