One of my favorite regular speakers at our National Book Festivals through the years was historian and biographer David McCullough, who passed away this week at age 89. A great friend of the Library of Congress, he was a warm and witty presenter, charming the audience in that clear, distinct voice that I always remember from Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”
McCullough not only shared those little-known details of the lives of his subjects—from presidents to the Panama Canal to the Johnstown Flood—but always emphasized to the festival goers the importance of history and understanding lives and events in the context of their times. One of those festival goers—a teacher friend of my wife’s named David Kinsella—summed it up in this Facebook post:
“Very saddened to hear of the death of the great historian and biographer David McCullough. I have many memories of meeting him over the years, but the Q&A that occurred at the 2011 National Book Festival may be the most memorable. My question to him that day: ‘What are the five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?’ His response, paraphrased:
- What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
- American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
- Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art and architecture can teach students much about history.
- Students should learn history through the lab technique. History should be a hands-on experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
- Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past.
- Coda: Attitudes about history are caught, not taught. If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.”
I’m going to take the time to remember David McCullough by watching some of his National Book Festival appearances over the years on the Library’s website. And I’ll look forward to being inspired by that next great author at this year’s festival on Sept. 3.
Thanks to David Kinsella, instructor at Patriot High School in Nokesville, Va., for permission to use the content from his Facebook post.