I was very pleased to have the opportunity to meet presidential biographer and historian David McCullough at Central Michigan University last night. He was sponsored by the Clarke Historical Library. I heard him speak as well to a large crowd at Plachta Auditorium.
David McCullough is a two time Pulitzer Prize winning author of books such as 1776, John Adams, and Truman. He also has narrated several PBS TV series including The Civil War and The American Experience. His book on John Adams is being made into a HBO series which will air next spring.
Mr. McCullough gave a thoughtful and well done presentation that lasted an hour and a half. He used personal narrative from his own life and from the life of great Americans to make his points. Here are a few I would like to summarize:
1. David McCullough spoke at length about how he valued libraries and librarians. He explained how it was librarians who had made his work possible and how everyone who is going to do research needs to make the acquaintance of research librarians who know their library collections. When I had talked with him earlier in the day, he was very interested in that I was a librarian and he asked me about my training and experience.
2. He was very saddened by the lack of history education in the USA. He thought it had gone bad and that students were mostly illiterate on this topic which he feels will hurt the nation. He believes the problem is widespread. "There is no exception to this problem anywhere," McCullough said.
3. David McCullough spoke of the need to demystify history. He noted that the Revolutionary War era Americans were not living in the past but in their present and they did not know how things would turn out. He believed too many students see the past through the lense of history not realizing how these people were real, flawed, and living their lives in very dangerous times.
"They weren't gods; they weren't superhumans. They were humans with flaws and mistakes," he said. "Somehow they responded to the occasion as no generation had before or has done since."
4. He also spoke of the fact that our present will one day be the past and that history will judge us. "History is getting the sense that you are part of history, and you will be judged by history," McCullough said. "This is a powerful kind of motivation." He is hoping this can be communicated to students in a way to make to make the past seem more relevant.
5. McCullough proposed reform in how history teachers for K-12 are prepared. He believes most are trained primarily in education theory and that they are not properly trained in history. This results in these teachers relying too much on textbooks many of which are of poor quality. He wants history teachers who are passionate about history and who major in the subject teaching children.
6. In response to a question from the audience, he threw water on the idea that he could as a historian make a judgement on the current president. He noted that Truman and Lincoln had both been hugely unpopular in the country during their presidencies and that public opinion was not helpful in determining a president's place in history. "We are to close to the events going on, " McCullough said. "It will take 50 years before any objective historical judgement on the current president can take place."
I am very happy that I had the opportunity to hear David McCullough speak and also have the opportunity to talk with him in person. I am now happy to also own autographed copies of Truman and 1776.