There is no doubt that the political climate of the United States has been heating up in recent years. The evidence ranges from the conflicts over removing confederate statues to the current NFL protests. In this time of political unrest, many are looking for guidance on what is important to in order to build a better future.
David McCullough, a renowned author and historian, attempted to provide this guidance at Robsham Theater as part of The Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics’ signature event series, The Clough Colloquium. McCullough has numerous achievements marking his career, including winning the Pulitzer Prize twice, winning the National Book Award twice, and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. On Sept. 26, McCullough addressed the filled-to-capacity theater.
“I am more interested in who are we going to build statues to,” McCullough began, referencing the recent removal of Confederate monuments and memorials. “Not just which are we going to tear down, but which are we going to raise?”
McCullough argued that the formation of a society of future leaders and good citizens begins with teachers, bringing attention to their deep importance and widespread impact. “I think that the most important people in our society… the people who are doing the work that will help most in the long run are our teachers... they are not given enough credit,” said McCullough.
Drawing on his years as an author and historian, McCullough shared some incredible examples of how teachers have helped to shape and inspire many well-known and successful leaders. Margaret McFarland, who was a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, taught Fred Rogers—also known as Mr. Rogers, a famous television personality and educator. According to McCullough, McFarland encouraged Rogers and other teachers to show their students what they love. “You can’t love some subject if you don’t know anything about it, anymore than you can love somebody you don’t know anything about,” added McCullough.
Through his research for his biography Truman, McCullough learned of another influential teacher-student relationship between Margaret Phelps and former president Harry Truman. Phelps taught Truman the great value of learning history, which shaped him as a person and later on as a president. With this anecdote, McCullough hoped BC students would take away the lesson that “if you don’t know history, you don’t know what’s happening all around you.”
McCullough believes that knowledge of history, English, literature, and the arts are essential stepping stones to leadership and a quality education. And while BC requires students to take two semesters of history classes as part of their university core, a large number of its peer institutions do not have history as a part of their curriculum. “80% of our colleges and universities don’t require history to graduate. Big mistake,” said McCullough.
While on the topic of education, McCullough acknowledged while we may be living in an information age, information does not constitute learning. “If information was learning and you memorized the World Almanac, you wouldn’t be educated, you’d be weird,” he commented, evoking laughter from the large audience. Even further, McCullough believes that young people today should embody the traits of modesty, empathy, and curiosity. Curiosity is particularly important, McCullough noted, because today’s students are not asking enough questions and are instead too preoccupied with their desire to know answers.
As McCullough began to conclude his speech, he gave a piece of life advice that falls in line with many of BC’s values. “Life is not just about money earned and material objects acquired,” he emphasized. “It’s about doing something of value and contributing to the betterment of life on Earth.”
In the question section of his lecture, the subject shifted to one of a more political nature. When McCullough was asked if he believed Joe Biden would run for president in 2020 and what his chances of winning were, McCullough replied in the affirmative. “I think Joe Biden would be a superb choice and I think Joe Biden will run,” said McCullough, citing Biden’s recent tone as his reasoning.
As McCullough’s lecture touched on many universal topics, his words undoubtedly left a mark on the BC students in attendance. Patrick Fahey, MCAS ‘21, was interested and impressed by McCullough, asking him for book recommendations during the question portion. For Fahey, McCullough’s words on the importance of teachers were particularly meaningful. “[McCullough’s lecture] made me reflect on the teachers that I have had that have affected me in a lot of great ways,” Fahey told The Gavel.
For Andrea Wisniewski, MCAS ‘18, McCullough’s insight encouraged her to think more deeply about her education, and the value of history specifically. “He reminded me that there is a wider importance to studying history and that there is a reason why history is so important,” said Wisniewski. “It doesn’t just show how we got to where we are as a society, it shows how we got to where we are as individuals.”
As he concluded his lecture, McCullough left the audience with a final thought about the value of engaging with others as a means to learn new things. “You will never meet someone who doesn’t know something you don’t know,” he said.