- Historic Sites
“There Isn’t Any Such Thing As The Past”
DAVID McCULLOUGH tells why he thinks history is the most challenging, exhilarating, and immediate of subjects
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
At the Truman Library, I found that Harry Truman had poured himself out on paper to an extraordinary extent—really amazing—in letters and diaries—heartfelt letters, revealing, genuine, wonderful letters. So much so that even if he hadn’t become President, one would be tempted to write a book about this guy out in Missouri who is writing all these letters and trying to win the favor of the girl in town who lived in the big house, who wouldn’t pay him much attention. It’s just a great story. But you know, I have to stress that I just don’t want to write about people I think are wonderful. They may have done some wonderful things, but I don’t want to write about saints. Heaven help me, I’d much rather write about a good scamp than a saint.
I felt I could break some new ground, and that’s very important to a writer always, which was true with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal and the Johnstown flood and the early life of Theodore Roosevelt. I was doing something different, and I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t want to keep doing the same kind of book. Right now I’m venturing into the eighteenth century, where I’ve never set foot before. It’s all new country to me. I’m very interested in the impact of France on America.
I think it’s a great story. More American history took place in France than anyplace in the world except our own country. And the influence of France on our country was immense. When you’re working on the Revolutionary War, as I’m doing now, you realize what the French did for us. We wouldn’t have a country if it weren’t for them. It wasn’t just that they sent the fleet and Rochambeau: They bankrolled us. They were supplying money and equipment and all kinds of things when we were in desperate need of it.
I want to cover events that should never have come out the way they did. The Revolutionary War is one of them, and the Revolutionary War is the most important war in our history.
You think it is?
Oh, yes, indeed. I certainly do. I didn’t think that before, but I do now. It changed the world. Thomas Paine was right. We were going to change the world; what happened here was going to change the world. It doesn’t have the scale and the grand-opera quality of the Civil War. It doesn’t have the slaughter of the Civil War, but, proportionately, it was slaughter. I mean, we were a very small country. People don’t realize how few people there were.
What is it in our national character that causes Americans to have such a loose grip on their past?
We have always been very interested in the future. We greet each other on the street and say, “What’s new?” Nobody tells you, “I just turned over an old leaf.” We recently had a President win an election talking about building a bridge to the future, think about tomorrow, think about what’s down the road and all that, which is a very American trait, and understandably. Because the future was going to be better, and we were building for the future.
But what is happening now, I’m sorry to say, is that we are raising a generation of young people who are historically illiterate to a large degree. We’ve done a very poor job of teaching history and conveying the nature of who we are and how we got to be where we are. And that’s bad. We’re cutting them off from the pleasure of all that. It’s as if something were eating away at the national memory. And believe me, it’s real. What students at good universities and good colleges today don’t know about basic American history is appalling.
How did it get that way? I mean, history is required in high school. It’s required in grade school.
It’s not the fault of the students. We got into this situation because in very many cases—in fact, in most cases nationwide—the people who are teaching history, particularly in the grade schools, didn’t like it when they were in school or weren’t good at it. Very often in high school, history is assigned to the coach. He has to teach something, so let him teach history. Now, I happen to have gone to a high school where the coach taught history, and he was a terrific history teacher. I’m not denigrating all coaches.
I was a coach who taught history.
There’s no trick to teaching history. You know that. It’s the most appealing subject in the world if it’s taught right. But if it’s made a matter of dates and memorization of obscure provisos and ancient treaties, if it’s made boring, if it’s made dull, how can you blame anyone for turning away from it?
“Sometimes we tend to forget that there were indeed great men and women who did very great things.”
If you were to teach a course of American history, what half-dozen events or documents could you not leave out?
Well, I did teach a course at Cornell University on American history, and I began with the Battle of Gettysburg and I ended with Lyndon B. Johnson, because he was President when my students were born. And each lecture was not on a subject but on a person or a group of persons. But of course, by knowing those people, you got to know that subject. And I gave them a project for their assignment, their term paper, that really was the essence of the course and the essence of what I believe ought to be the way we learn history. Each student—there were 180 some students—was given a photograph. And no two photographs were the same. The assignment was to write a term paper that derived from that photograph. There was no right or wrong answer. And nobody else in the class was doing the same job, so you weren’t competing with other people. You were competing only with yourself.