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1776: The Antidote to Boring American History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 19, 2024 3:01 am

1776: The Antidote to Boring American History

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 19, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Historian David McCullough brings generational talent to those studying the wild realities of America's independence. After all, no one has ever lived in the past, but in the present. At the National Archive, McCullough names and thanks his own teachers, and hands down the important right way to teach and study our history.

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Not obligations of Navy Federal and may lose value. And we continue with Our American Stories. Up next, best-selling historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, David McCullough, the late David McCullough is the author of 1776. In this masterwork, he tells the intensely human story of those who marched with George Washington, General George Washington in the year of the Declaration of Independence beginning in 1775. Here he is telling the story of how American history is taught today.

Let's take a listen. There are wonderful teachers of history and in many places history is being taught extremely effectively. But the blunt truth is that in our public schools nationwide we have been doing an abysmal job of teaching history.

It's been a long time since the Bradley Report which spelled all of this out very clearly. There have been surveys and studies since. A survey conducted by the American the Council of American Alumni here in Washington was a filling out a questionnaire by seniors, only seniors, on what were called the 50 best universities and colleges in the country. And the results were very discouraging.

The performance was less than what it would have been at the high school level 25 years ago. A question 19, who was the commanding American, who was the American commanding officer at the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown? More people, more of these college seniors in their best schools, best colleges and universities answered Ulysses S. Grant than answered George Washington. And six percent of them said it was Douglas MacArthur, which shows they didn't know they were guessing.

They're guessing. I could tell you at length incidents that I've known when I've been lecturing or serving as a visiting professor or lecturer at colleges and universities you know very well. It's striking.

It's appalling. But it's curable and I think the problem is at the core of the problem is that we're not teaching our teachers as effectively as we need to. We're graduating too many teachers with degrees in education who don't know any subject. They have had no major other than education. And there's good signs that several universities are changing that. SMU now is always required that you have to major in a subject if you want to teach. The University of Oklahoma now requires that one major in a subject if you want to teach.

This is a big step in the right direction. Now if a teacher doesn't know her subject, his subject, that obviously makes it difficult to teach that subject. But you can't love something you don't know any more than you can love someone you don't know. And we all remember from our own experience those teachers who meant the most, who inspired us, who threw open the window and gave us a whole new inspiration or idea about the possibilities of learning were the teachers who loved what they were teaching and conveyed that enthusiasm. Ms. Schmelz in sixth grade who said come over here and look in this microscope.

You're going to get a kick out of this. My high school history teachers, Robert Abercrombie, Walter Jones, they were marvelous teachers because they loved what they were teaching. There was a terrific teacher of teachers at the University of Pittsburgh, Margaret McFarland, who was, among other things, the great mentor of Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers, who reached more children than any teacher who ever lived.

And he said so. Everything he did in his program is based on the teachings of Margaret McFarland. And Margaret McFarland said attitudes aren't taught, they're caught. It's the attitude of the teacher that's caught and that's what matters most.

Show them what you love, she would tell teachers and advice of how to do it. Also, if a teacher doesn't know what she's teaching, she's therefore more dependent on the textbooks. And while we have some superb textbooks, most of them are far from superb. Many of them are so dreary, so boring, so lifeless, it's as if they were designed to kill any interest that you might have in history.

There are certain basic ideas, it seems to me, which are essential in writing history and teaching history. And one is to convey the sense that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. That events could have gone off in any number of different ways for any number of different reasons at a variety of points all along the way. Nothing was ever on a track.

We're taught history that this followed this followed that, and that followed that, and we begin to think that that's how it had to be. It never had to be. Nor was anyone ever aware of how things would turn out. The expression the foreseeable future ought to be dropped.

We shouldn't use it. There's no such thing as the foreseeable future. Any more than there's any such thing as the self-made man or the self-made woman. We are all the results of many people who have helped us, inspired us, corrected us, reprimanded us, given us encouragement when we need it. And we know who they were, parents, teachers, friends. But often they're people we've never known because they lived in another time.

They lived long ago. And they may have written the symphony that moves us to our souls. They may have written the laws that we enjoy as one among the blessings of this country. They may have been poets.

They may have been great masters of literature or painting. And they have shaped us. They've shaped us with their vocabulary. All of us walk around every day unknowingly quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pope, Swift.

And we think this is just the way we talk, unknowing that these all come from a long tradition of the great English language. And too few, it seems to me, understand the degree to which we have been shaped by those who created this country. Created this country. And not just the founders, but the people whose lives and whose fortunes and whose sacred honor was on the line, but whose names mean nothing to us. They were anonymous or largely anonymous even in their own time.

But they were there. And they did heroic and sometimes extraordinarily unprecedented acts which have made possible how we live. Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband written from Quincy when he was in Philadelphia in 1776 said, future generations which will reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors.

And in this she was entirely right. Another point to keep in mind, it seems to me, and to convey in what we teach and what we write about history is that in a very real sense there was never any such thing as the past. Nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, Washington. They didn't walk around saying, isn't this fascinating living in the past?

Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes? They lived in the present, but it was their present, not ours. And they don't know how it's going to come out any more than we do.

They don't know what's over the horizon. And you're listening to the late great David McCullough telling a story about storytelling, and that is telling the story of how to tell the story of America and how so often history is reduced to dry dates, chronology, lifeless, lifeless explications about this remarkable, remarkable country. When we come back, more of this remarkable storytelling on storytelling itself, American history here on Our American Stories. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp.

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So follow The 7 right now. And we continue with Our American Stories and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. He was giving a talk about 1776 at the National Archives, and we pick up now where we last left off. Nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, they didn't walk around saying, isn't this fascinating living in the past?

Aren't we picturesque in our funny clothes? They lived in the present. So when we try to enter into their world, into their time, into their culture, we must remember that their present was different from ours, and as a consequence, they were different from what we are. In many ways, more different than we realized. Yes, of course, they were fellow human beings.

Yes, of course, they had many of the same emotions and fears and ambitions and the like, but because they lived in another culture, they of course were different, and again, more different than we often understand. Now, George Washington has long been long perceived as the marble man, virtually a demigod, an emblem, a unifying symbol, an icon, and the rest. And he's very knowable.

He's very approachable, to use a word in fashion. He had been in command since the summer of 1775, and when he took command, please understand that he wasn't the George Washington of the Gilbert Stewart paintings. He wasn't the George Washington of the powdered hair and the awkward teeth. He was a young man in the prime of his life, and in spectacular physical condition.

Six feet two, 190 to 200 pounds, and for all of 43 years old. And he'd never commanded an army in battle, before in his life. He was new to it.

They were all new to it, and they were all young. Jefferson, 33, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Adams, 40.

Hancock, 39. Benjamin Rush, one of the most interesting of them all, was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Nathaniel Greene, who turned out to be the best general we had, and who started knowing only what he had read in both of his books, and who was the best he had read in books, was a Quaker with a bad limp from a childhood injury, and he was all of 33, and had been made a major general, having never set foot on the battlefield, or having served in a war before in his life. Henry Knox was a big, fat, careless Boston bookseller, 25 years old, and he too only understood, all that he understood about the military was what he'd read in books. Greene had bought most of his books on the military in Henry Knox's bookshop, and so Henry Knox and Greene have become fast friends over books before the war began. And the fact that they had learned as much as they had, but only from books, was never held against them, because, you see, this was the 18th century when it was widely understood that learning things from reading books was a good idea.

Neither Greene, nor Knox, nor Washington had more than about a fifth grade education, formally. But they were very intelligent men, and they never stopped reading. Now some people say to me, often, and I understand, how much of your time is spent on research, and how much is spent on writing? They almost never say, how much of your time is spent thinking? And most of your time is spent thinking, and it should be that way. My wife Rosalie will say, when I'm in the shower, say, stop writing your book and get out of the shower.

I work every day, all day. I find that if I stay with it every day, all day, it's both more enthralling and easier. I try to, at the beginning, read all sort of the basic secondary works on the subject, but get past that as quickly as possible into the primary sources. And I'm trying to write the book I would like to read.

That's really the essence of it. If the book hasn't been written that I would like to read, I write it so I can read it. And I went to a party one night when I was quite new at this. I'd written one book, but I'd embarked on writing my second book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. And it was a party in the summer on Martha's Vineyard where we live. And I was introduced to a well-known Washington socialite of great importance. And my host said to her, I would like you to meet David McCullough.

He's writing a book about the Brooklyn Bridge. And she said in a voice that, from my point of view, was far too loud, who in the world would ever want to read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, I tried not to show my seething feelings about her. But on the way home, I think I was probably punching the dashboard as I drove along. But I think by the time I got back to the house, I realized that she'd done me a great favor.

She's right. Who would want to read a book about the Brooklyn Bridge? Well, I would.

I would. And my feeling has always been, if I can make it as interesting as it really was, I'll have achieved what I'm trying to attain. Now, I write narrative history. And there are people who don't think highly of narrative history. They think that it's not quite the way it ought to be. That's all right. That's fine. Isn't it wonderful?

We don't all have to think alike. I loved historical novels when I was in my 20s. I read almost all, for example, the books of Kenneth Roberts, Oliver Wiswell, and the Rundell. Wonderful, wonderful novels. But I kept thinking, how much of this is what happened? How many of these things that people are saying did they really say? How many of these characters actually existed? And I began thinking, wouldn't it be wonderful to write something that had the pull, the appeal of these wonderful novels, but yet it was all true. You couldn't make up anything. You had to play by the rules that everything had to be the real thing. No invented dialogue, only what they actually said in letters and diaries and the like. And so that's what I've been trying to do.

And of course, I had many good examples of that spirit, that attitude. One of whom, one of the masters of the forum, Shelby Foote, whose works on the Civil War are literature. And I think that's what people who write history, at least not some of us, ought to aspire to. Because otherwise, no one's going to read it, except professional people. And if no one reads it other than the professionals, I think history is doomed.

Because it belongs to all of us. That's the wonderful, that's what most teachers need to find out, teaching history. Get their hands dirty in it. Find out the excitement. The detective case accelerated, accelerative curiosity that works for anybody who takes it up. I was an English major in college.

I started off having no idea how to do it. And you learn by doing. You can't learn to play the piano without playing the piano. You can't learn to paint without picking up a brush and putting some paint on and going to work. And it's the same thing with writing history.

Dig in, learn from the experience, and enjoy it. Because if you're enjoying it, the people who are going to read what you wrote and write will enjoy it. And rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Learn to edit yourself. That's the hardest thing of all. Write what you have to say and then put it aside for a while.

And then call upon the editor you to step in and show that mug that wrote this stuff how it can be fixed. That in many ways is the most enjoyable part of the whole process for me. And read it out loud to someone or have someone read it out loud to you. Because that's when you begin to hear things that are wrong with it or need to be changed or things that need to be added that you don't often see with your eye. I think we all ought to read to each other much more than we do. I think it's one of the pleasures of life.

We shouldn't just, of course we should read to our children and grandchildren, but we ought to read aloud to each other. And a terrific job on the production and editing by our own Greg Hengler. And you've been listening to the late David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, telling the story in essence of his own love affair with history. And telling the story of how his story came to be and his affection for this country. Warts and all.

Sins and all. There's a great moment earlier when he said, you can't love something you don't know. And here at Our American Stories, I think that's what we're trying to do. Get you to fall in love with your country.

With so many of the stories you may not know. I also loved when he said, attitudes are caught, not taught. And if there's one thing you come away from listening to Our American Stories, it's a sense of gratitude for all that came before us. The inheritance we have here in this country was not something we fought for or earned. And it's ours to pass along to the next generation. David McCullough, here on Our American Stories.

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