By Laura Smith
October 23, 2008
In his speech at Elon University’s fall convocation, historian and biographer David McCullough stressed the importance of education and scholarship to the audience.
“I think it’s particularly fitting to me, appropriate, exciting, to be a part of a ceremony that honors scholarship and teaching,” McCullough said. “And it’s about that to a large degree that I would like to say a few things this afternoon.”
McCullough, a Yale University graduate and the author of eight books, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has won the National Book Award Twice. His most recent book, 1776, is a New York Times bestseller.
McCullough first visited Elon just days after the events of September 11, giving the first Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture on September 19, 2001 where he offered words of hope during such a tumultuous time.
On October 23, he explained how education has made him so successful and why those who have the opportunity for it should be grateful.
“When I think about what I got out of Yale…above all it was the teachers, above all it was the brilliant lectures, and above all it was that great sterling library,” McCullough said.
McCullough described other teachers in American history who inspired their students to do great things, including Margaret Phelps and Thornton Wilder.
McCullough got the bug for writing after moving to New York City in his early twenties with no idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Starting out working for Sports Illustrated, a new magazine at the time, McCullough moved on to work for Time-Life for five and a half years.
“All of a sudden came John F. Kennedy,” McCullough said. “I was one of those thousands who was swept away by his call to serve.” McCullough moved to Washington D.C. to work for the government and wound up working for the United States Information Agency with Edward R. Murrow as its head at the time.
McCullough became interested in the events of the 1889 Johnstown Flood and went to research it, but came to find that he was not impressed with any of the existing books about it.
“So I remembered what Thornton Wilder had said, “I write the book I would like to read, ”McCullough said. He did just this. The Johnstown Flood became McCullough’s first book.
His next idea for a book was the architecture and building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which led to The Great Bridge.
“It belongs to the people,” McCullough said of the structure that has stood the test of time. “ There it stands it seems to me as a symbol of affirmation like none we have.”
“We can build our own Brooklyn Bridge,” McCullough said. “ We don’t know what that will be… maybe it will be something in the way of an idea, or an act of generosity surpassing what others have done before, maybe it will incur a leap of the imagination. But it won’t happen without well-educated young people.”
“The essentials of an education are very simple,” McCullough said. He explained that there are three necessities: the book, the teacher, and the “midnight oil.”
“You students who are here today, you cannot read enough,” McCullough said. “It’s not what you find, it’s how you look at what you find.”
McCullough has learned a lot from his work as a historian.
“History is not about dates,” he said. “History is about ideas, about human nature, why we behave the way we do in the best and in the worst of times.”