In a recent appearance at the Heritage Foundation, an author who has written many great histories gave some insight as to why the Ivory Tower produces such, at best, lackluster ones.
“Many people say, ‘Why bother with history?,’ and unfortunately many of them are in education,” best-selling writer David McCullough said at the Heritage Foundation last Friday. McCullough has penned best-selling historical biographies of American Presidents John Adams and Harry S. Truman.
“Why is it possible that an otherwise intelligent person does not know that the original 13 colonies were on the East Coast or who George Marshall was,” McCullough asked the crowd rhetorically, and ruefully.
“We’re planting a lot of cut flowers,” McCullough noted, offering a coda on a famous quote from historian Daniel Boorstein. Boorstein had said, “Trying to plan for the future without understanding the past is like planting cut flowers.”
And the rootlessness is starting earlier and earlier. McCullough observed that the state of Alabama has cancelled the teaching of history for the first eight grades in its public schools.
“There is an awful tendency among otherwise kind and intelligent people to denigrate people who lived before us,” McCullough told the overflow crowd at Heritage, which consisted mainly of college students.
That is an “awful tendency” that McCullough tries hard not to replicate, particularly in his latest history, 1776. McCullough’s work is so meticulous that even the Pulitzer Prize committees have been forced to acknowledge the Massachusetts resident: He won the Pulitzer Prize for Biogaphy in 1993 for his account of President Truman’s life and times.
One lesson that can be learned in studying history is that of the importance of reading and writing, particularly the former skill, which seems to be becoming a lost art. Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox became revolutionary war generals at the ages of 33 and 25, in large part,
because of their extensive reading on military history.
In those days, “They had this idea that the best way to learn something was to read books,” McCullough said wryly. And former first lady Abigail Adams wrote letters every night, no matter what crises she faced. And she faced many, as McCullough recounts. The Revolutionary War was the longest armed conflict the United States was involved in until U. S. forces fought in the Vietnam War.
Of the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams wrote, “Posterity, which will reap the blessings, will scarcely begin to know of our sufferings.” “That is sadly true,” McCullough concluded.
McCullough offers up reams of historical gems in his latest effort. To name just a few:
Despite the images conveyed in Gilbert Stuart’s paintings, the Revolutionary War was very much a young person’s war: George Washington, for example, commanded the Continental Army at the age of 45. John Adams would ride 400 miles on horseback from Massachusetts to serve in Congress. Imagine Ted Kennedy doing that.