Where else but Stanford can one amble out at twilight for a walk and come across a two-time Pulitzer prize winner giving a talk on the importance of History? Joanna and I were taking a stroll last night and we came across of bunch of high-ranking university people having an event in the quad. The Sad Grad Students were lit up and they were serving drinks in the courtyard. As we were wandering around, somebody at the podium mentioned that David McCullough was going to be speaking after dinner. Having just read 1776 (hardcover copies selling for less than $9 on amazon.com) and enjoying it immensely, I was very interested in hearing him speak, so we hung around for an hour while the distinguished guests ate dinner.
Digression – Everyone who has any interest at all in American History should read 1776. My high school textbooks made it sound like the US was predestined to win the War of Independence, when, in fact nothing could be further from the truth. (Providence, with a capital “P” is a character in many books which does a great disservice to the founders by waving away their accomplishments, great by human standards, and claiming “God willed it so, and so it was”) Having read 1776, one comes to better appreciate the fragility of the present. Not only that, it is an excellent read. My main complaint is that it ends (not surprisingly) at the very beginning of 1777 and I have not been able to find a good history that finishes the story (1777-1783) – can anyone recommend one?
McCullough’s talk was great and totally made it worth waiting to hear him speak. The main thrust of his speech was that most students – even those at supposedly high-ranking universities – are largely ignorant of American History, and that something should be done about that. He told an anecdote from a time when he was teaching an advanced undergraduate “honors” seminar at Harvard – to a bunch of kids majoring in History. The first day of class, to kickstart discussion, he asked, “Who knows who George C. Marshall is?” Nobody knew the answer.
As a computer science major, I am often inclined to discount fuzzy subjects as being largely irrelevant. This is not to say they cannot be engaging – I do, after all, have a minor in Classical Literature. So when McCullough first started quoting statistics to support that notion that more time should be spent studying history in schools, I was dubious that there was actually a problem. Certainly from my own experience at Stanford, I often had the feeling that the people majoring in fuzzy subjects had it a lot easier (they did) and that they should be forced to have basic literacy in pure science, mathematics, and computer science. On the other side, people majoring in various sorts of engineering had to take IHUM, PWR, and five GERs consisting of the area 3 and 4 classes – classes focusing on fuzzy stuff. That’s a lot. With a year of Latin or Greek, every engineer could graduate with a double major in Classics (almost).
However, McCullough told a very convincing story about the leaders of the American Revolution being shaped and strengthened by their fluency in Classical History. He told us about the darkest days of the American Revolution, the darkest days of American History, in the year of 1776 when George Washington and his rabble in arms escaped narrow defeat on several occasions. He told us how at one point, the continental army, the hope of America, consisted of three thousand desperate men, arrayed against the forces of Britain – the only superpower of the 18th century. He told us of how the continental congress fled the impending capture of Philadelphia, vesting absolute power of the state in the hands of George Washington. He told us how King George III once commented that if Washington relinquished that power at the conclusion of the war, then he would be the greatest man to ever live. I said McCullough’s story involved Classical History and it did – he thesis was that the colonies were able to muster such great men as Washington, Knox, Greene, Jefferson, Adams, and others because those men understood the Greek notion of History as a play, with each man to play his part. The script, of course, is improvised, but actors in a play are conscious of their character’s motivations, strengths, and goals. Thus it is hard to turn aside in despair when it would be out of character. He gave us a Greek saying by Heraclitus, which I like, so I will repeat here: “Character is destiny”.
So at the end of the night, I was not so sure that I really needed that bunch of introductory physics classes I had to take to complete my CS major. Perhaps McCullough is right.
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For anyone who has read this far, I just came across a clip from the Daily Show of David McCullough being interviewed (link below).
Jon: You and I are both historians and authors, to some extent.
Jon: You chose to fill your history book with “facts”.
Jon: Interesting choice, tell me why.
Daily Show Clip