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Saturday, March 13, 2004

McCullough draws strength from history

By Jeannie Glickson

Calling the lack of historical knowledge a symptom of "hubris for the present," noted historian David McCullough launched a spirited address on the importance of quality education and appreciation of the past. The venerable scholar, storyteller and "citizen chronicler" spoke to a near-capacity crowd in the Moscone Gateway Ballroom on Friday.

"The digital watch is a perfect representation of our obsession with the present," he said. "It only tells you what time it is right now." The watch, much like contemporary culture, offers no sense of proportion or links to past or future. Planning for the future without an awareness of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers, said McCullough, quoting Library of Congress historian Daniel Boorstein.

"Change is a rule of life," said McCullough. Our biological selves last for only a limited time, but we have "this whole spectrum of human experience available to us. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We are all products of parents and teachers, people who changed our lives."

Vital lessons
This is one of the vital lessons that history can teach us, said McCullough. "We are influenced by people in history whom we never knew. They created our way of life and our freedoms. We go around quoting people we couldn't possibly have met."

History also gives perspective to our lives. September 11, 2001 may have been the single most devastating day the nation has faced, but the aftermath was not the worst time in our history, according to McCullough.

"We've been through worse," he said, citing both 1776 and 1941-42 as more terrible times. Although 1776 marks the birth of our country, it was also "the worst year for our country," said McCullough. Colonial troops were far outnumbered by British forces; smallpox, typhus and other illnesses affected 40 percent of the revolutionaries, who did not understand the need for sanitation or hygiene.

At the beginning of World War II, McCullough noted, there was no assurance that Hitler could be stopped. Half of the U.S. Navy had been destroyed in the attack at Pearl Harbor, Britain seemed ready to fall and Nazi forces were marching on Moscow. McCullough recalled a speech that Winston Churchill made when visiting America. "We haven't journeyed this far because we're made of sugar candy," said the prime minister. The words gave people courage, which McCullough defined as "the experience of having done it before."

History for the young
"To deny our youth a sense of history is not just to make them less effective or productive as citizens," said McCullough. "It is to limit their human capacity." Students today, he said, are not learning basic lessons of history in school. They are becoming a "generation of historically illiterate people."

In his experiences speaking before college students, McCullough has found that few have any appreciation or understanding of historical lessons, although they "know" many facts. "Information is not knowledge or learning," he said. He called upon the audience to help rethink how history is taught and to instill an attitude and an excitement in students about who we are and where we come from.

"History is a source of pleasure, as well as strength," said McCullough, who admitted that he didn't want to "come back" to the present after spending seven years in the 18th century researching his latest book. He encouraged the audience to visit state and national parks-and their local public library.

He sees the demands on the public library system today as an encouraging sign, and called public libraries "among our top three accomplishments." The audience applauded when he pointed out that there are still more public libraries in this country than there are McDonald's restaurants.

"As you enter a library, you are walking through the portals of freedom and into an ad-venture," he said. "Everybody is welcome." He noted that even during the Depression, in the poorest areas of the South, "no library closed for lack of funds."

The abundance of resources in America gives McCullough hope for the future. "Some children grow up," he said. "Others are raised. Today we have a greater capacity than any civilization ever before to educate all of our children."

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Last modified 13/March/2004