“History is about who we are and why we are the way we are.”
Or so said David McCullough in the Tower Center Medal of Freedom Student Forum on November 18th. McCullough, besides being one of my dad’s favorite authors, has written eleven history books that have led to more than forty honorary degrees, two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, two Francis Parkman Prizes, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and New York Public Library’s Literary Lion Award. On top of all of this, McCullough received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, which is the highest civilian award granted to a United States citizen.
I have to admit: it was not David McCullough’s extensive resume that sent me wandering into the forum that Wednesday—it was everything that I had heard my father say about his work. I vividly remember Dad, gripping 1776 in his hand, explaining with bright eyes McCullough’s mastery of the historical narrative, the way he paints history before your eyes.
I’m not really sure what I expected walking into the forum. Excellence, of course, and to learn more about an author I had never read. What I got out of it, however, were not only lessons for history. They were lessons for life.
The moderator of the forum began with a simple question: “Why history?” It turns out that McCullough stumbled upon the history genre almost by accident. Unimpressed with the work that he found about the Johnstown Flood, McCullough thought, “Well, if I don’t like any of these histories, I’ll write my own.” This kind of attitude inspired many of his following works. “Experts have the answers. All I had was questions,” he explained. He told a story in which he walked into the Library of Congress and asked the attendant what the most unvisited section of the library was. His motto, he said, is that he tries to “give credit where credit is overdue.”
But then his discussion turned outward from his works. “High accomplishments are often representative of who we are,” he said, referring to his latest release The Wright Brothers. His inspiration for writing on this subject was its often overlooked importance. He reminded the audience that the Wright Brothers never even had a formal education, except the shelves of books that their father instructed them to utilize. They read constantly, voraciously, and this practice developed within the brothers a stunning ability to write.
“You must learn to use the English language,” McCullough implored his audience, “You must learn to write well.”
When asked what his favorite war is, McCullough responded “The American Revolution in my mind is the most important war we ever fought, and it was a study in perseverance.” He underscored the importance of never giving up or succumbing to failure, and remarked that “one way to judge potential leaders is to examine how they handle failure.”
The forum ended with a warning from McCullough about the trend of colleges and universities phasing out mandatory history programs and courses for students. “If we’re fading in our understanding of history,” he said, “that’s a form of national amnesia, and that’s dangerous.”
McCullough’s thoughts are a poignant reminder of the importance of literature, tenacity, and history in an age dominated by business careers and quick solutions. The Wright Brothers never had a formal education, but they had everything they needed in a collection of great books. Good readers make good writers; good writers make good leaders; and good leaders don’t quit when they fail the first time—or even the second or third and beyond.