Renowned historian stresses curiosity in Founder’s Day address to students
A “master in the art of national history” visited the Washington University campus this past weekend as part of the annual Founder’s Day activities. David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “John Adams,” “Truman” and “1776,” spoke to students Saturday afternoon.
McCullough is a two-time National Book Award winner, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
McCullough was supposed to speak at last year’s Founder’s Day, but he fell ill. He returned this year. McCullough spent the day, which is meant to commemorate the founding of the University, speaking to students as well as delivering the keynote address to the 900-person audience at the Founder’s Day event in downtown St. Louis.
The Student Alumni Ambassadors Program (SAAP) sponsored McCullough’s speech.
He spoke off the cuff about the importance of writing in a college education.
“When we start writing, we often have insights that we wouldn’t have had had we not been writing,” he said. “Keep writing; keep a journal, work your thoughts out on paper.”
McCullough also highlighted the crucial role that asking questions plays in everyday life.
“So much of our education is predicated on knowing answers. Don’t let that side of the educational process let you stop asking questions,” he said. “Show you have curiosity. What distinguishes us as humans is curiosity.”
Students responded positively to the advice offered by McCullough.
“The whole time he was speaking, I thought he was talking directly to me,” junior Andong Cheng said. “I didn’t want it to stop.”
Organizers of the event agreed with Cheng’s sentiments.
“He is such an articulate speaker and had great things to say about life,” said Brit Royal, a member of SAAP who graduated from the University in 2009.
McCullough is currently in the process of writing a book about Americans in Paris during the years between 1830 and 1900. According to McCullough, these Americans sought experience in certain fields, such as architecture, that were not taught in American schools at the time.
McCullough noted the difference between his form of history, which is intended for a general audience, and academic history, which is written by historians for other historians.
“You can tell a perfectly accurate and truthful story of what happened, and you can tell it in a boring way or an interesting way,” he said. “Some historians are writing for other historians. I am writing for all of us. I am an amateur historian.”
McCullough also stressed the importance of understanding a time period in order to understand the wide scope of history.
“It is important to read what they read as opposed to reading what they wrote. They weren’t like us because they lived in a different time and culture,” he said. “The more you know of people at other times, the more you have an understanding of history.”
According to McCullough, teachers should be held in the highest esteem in American society.
“Teachers are the most important people in society. There is no more intensely valuable career,” he said. “I know many teachers who changed my life, made me see, and I am forever indebted to them.
McCullough responded to questions from the audience for the majority of his talk. He then expressed his desire to meet the subjects of his books and other figures from world history.
“John Adams is one of the most infinitely brilliant figures I’ve written about,” he said. “If I could talk to anyone from the past, I’d love to have a chat with Michelangelo or George Gershwin.”
Overall, those in attendance saw the event as a success.
“It was an intimate gathering that gave students a great opportunity to know McCullough,” said Natalie West, assistant director of alumni relations for SAAP.
Students in attendance who had read his work found themselves further interested in McCullough’s writings.
“I felt myself wishing I had brought a notebook so I could write down everything he said,” junior Courtney LeCompte said. “His work seems fascinating. I have never read any of his books, but now I will.”
At the end of the day, McCullough stressed that through writing, he is able to do what he loves. He urged students to find their calling, whether it is through writing or some other medium.
“As long as people are willing to help support me financially, I am going to keep writing my books.”