- 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
One student received a Winslow Homer drawing of a Union officer in the Civil War. Another student was given a photograph of an American oil tanker being sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Florida. Another fellow got a photograph of Sergeant York. He may not have even known in what century World War I happened, but he wrote a wonderful paper on Sergeant York. And by learning about Sergeant York, he learned about the whole war.
We have wonderful students today, maybe the best ever. But many of them have gotten to where they are because they’re very skilled at reading a teacher’s mind. And I wasn’t going to tell them what I wanted. Some students, I think, discovered that history is great fun. And they changed their major. In a couple of cases they found their vocation.
How did you find your vocation?
I found my vocation because I was messing around up at the Library of Congress one day and I ran across some photographs taken in Johnstown after the flood. I wanted to know about those photographs, so I took a book out of the library. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I had gotten very interested in the Johnstown flood.
People would say, “You must have known a lot about the Johnstown flood before you started off on that project.” I said, “No, I didn’t.” All I knew was that when we were growing up in western Pennsylvania, in Pittsburgh, we used to make a lake of gravy in the mashed potatoes and then we’d take our fork and break it, and the gravy would flow down among the peas. As that happened, we’d say, “The Johnstown flood,” not knowing why we did that, not knowing that a dam had broken and so forth.
And that’s the kick. It’s the discovery. It’s the adventure that comes with discovery and getting on a project and finding things out yourself. It’s suddenly seeing things come into focus and realizing, “Oh, my goodness, look at this. Yes, I see. I understand now.” If it happens that way, you never forget it.