Last night I had the pleasure of hearing David McCullough speak at the Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara. For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he is perhaps one of the most popular writers of American history today. Some of his most famous works include Truman and John Adams, both of which received Pulitzer prizes. He has a new book coming out next week entitled The Greater Journey about American artists in Paris during the 1800s. Needless to say, he is quite an accomplished writer of history.
What I enjoy most about him, however, is his approach to history. All of his books treat history as a narrative or story, which it is. He describes historical figures in fascinating detail, making them as human and as real as anyone we would interact with today. He aims to move the reader with these true stories, in the same way that a piece of art would. Since he holds no formal degrees, his writing is never aimed at the academic circles. It’s meant for the people.
So much of what he said last night rang true for me. I won’t go into all of what he said, but a few things struck me. At one point, he began talking about the poor state of history being taught in schools. This certainly applies for all subjects in our education system currently, but history seems to be one of the most grievous examples. He shared the story of a girl, currently a sophomore in college, who came up to him at the end of one of his talks. She thanked him for coming to speak, and shared that she had never known until that evening that the thirteen colonies were on the East Coast. In another case, a college group had no idea who George C Marshall (of the Marshall Plan) was.
He didn’t place the blame on the students, or even on the teachers. He placed the blame on “all of us”, which seemed to me to indicate parents and families. If history is never discussed at home, if historic sites are never visited, if children aren’t growing up in an atmosphere where a sense of the importance of history is emphasized, those kids will take it to be the dry subject of their textbooks. Clearly, the problem lies with the teaching as well. If teachers aren’t passionate or very knowledgeable about the subject they teach, kids will continue to remain unimpressed and bored. The essence of history isn’t names or dates. It’s human at its core, and the excitement of history has to be “caught” from good teachers who want their students to thrive.
The evening helped to clarify my own personal focus on history as well. As some of you know, I’m in the process of pursuing an MA in history, but I’m still not crazy about the idea of teaching or entering the academic world. I want to present history to people in a way that they will be touched by it, like many are touched by Mr. McCullough’s work. In academia, there is such a strong emphasis put on the need of “furthering the discipline”, which partly consists of complex historiographical arguments that most ordinary people would have no interest in. Those arguments are meant for the private circle of historians and not for the layman. While I personally do find those arguments fascinating, the subject of history is so much more than this. If I have to present history within the parameters or framework of an educational bureaucracy, will I still be able to make history alive and exciting to students or to anyone?
After Mr. McCullough’s talk, he sat down for a book signing. I rushed out and grabbed a copy of Truman, the one biography of his I haven’t read, and got in line. After about 30 minutes or so, I stood near the table and sorted out in my mind what I would say. I decided beforehand that I would try and ask him one brief question if I could. I approached the table, and he smiled as we both exchanged hellos. I thanked him for his work, and then asked him the question.
“If you could give one piece of advice to someone wanting to write history for a living, what would it be?”
His response: “Just start doing it!”
He grinned, saying that I should find a subject that is fascinating to me, that very little has been written on, and begin researching and writing. He said that it would be wise to find a subject where plenty of primary sources exist, so that I have the evidence and support to back up my story. I was aware of this, since primary sources are basically History 101, but it was still good to hear him confirm it.
All in all, I have to admit that I was a bit starstruck and awed by the fact that he took the time to answer my question. A long line of fans waited behind me, but he gave a thorough answer without simply brushing me off. Pretty great.
I left the Granada Theatre thankful for the experience I had. It confirmed in me that my love for American history is still just as alive and vibrant as it ever was. It also reminded me of my strong belief that history doesn’t belong to a small group of historians. It belongs to all of humanity.