History unites every academic subject. “It helps to break down the dividers between the disciplines of science, medicine, philosophy, art, music,” says David McCullough, one of America’s greatest historians. “It’s all part of the human story and ought to be seen as such.” In this way, history does not merely unite academia, it offers substantive middle ground to an angry nation.
McCullough, a Pittsburgh native, author of ten impressive history books, and the voice of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, is a walking museum and a true national treasure. He is perfectly suited to deliver a commencement address to the Class of 2019, and we ought to invite him to share his stories and wisdom with us, our friends, and our families.
When McCullough tells stories, it’s clear he has a profound appreciation for the uniquely human and transcendent elements found within. Facts are important — his works glow with primary sources — but, alone, they are insufficient.
“The mind itself isn’t enough,” he says in a speech recorded in Imprimis, “You have to have heart.”
A heart for the truth is part of a broader theme of McCullough’s work. Optimism for the future and an appreciation for historical examples of integrity, character, and accomplishment permeate both his choice of subject matter and the work itself. In a day when complainers, fearmongers, and the goblins of internet media decry daily the unprecedented state of national or global affairs, McCullough reminds us that “when bad news is riding high and despair in fashion, when loud mouths and corruption seem to own center stage, when some keep crying that the county is going to the dogs, remember it’s always been going to the dogs in the eyes of some, and that 90 percent, or more, of the people are good people, generous-hearted, law-abiding, good citizens… and believe, rightly, as you do, in the ideals upon which our way of life is founded.”
McCullough’s work shows the attentive reader that our world is no worse off than it ever has been. Yet there is plenty of work to be done — no matter what confronts Hillsdale’s graduates, the examples of Washington, Adams, and others, brought to life by McCullough, can be a great asset.
McCullough’s frequent inducements to gratitude are also valuable. Nothing in the past, neither the history of our parents nor of our ancestors, should be taken for granted, he says. This thankful mentality is an “antidote to the hubris of the present — the idea that everything we have and everything we do and everything we think is the ultimate, the best.” What’s past may be prologue, but we all only live in our own present and should avoid the arrogance of today, which takes advantage of hindsight and does not appreciate the latent power of the future. Hillsdale students could spend less time clucking disapprovingly at the actions of the slaveholders, communists, and socialists of yore and more time seeking to understand how these particular pasts came to be and how they have molded the present. McCullough is acquainted with Hillsdale: He delivered a fine speech on campus in 2005, and has twice been published in Imprimis.
If Hillsdale invites him again, McCullough could use the college’s illustrious past, from Ransom Dunn to the Civil War’s 4th Michigan Infantry, and remind students and faculty of our heritage — a heritage so valuable because of the principles it sustains to this day.
McCullough would harness the many lessons of the past with which he is familiar to instruct graduates who will shape the future. And if he so chooses, he could conclude his address with the amusing and motivational words of Abigail Adams to her son, featured also in his Pulitzer-winning biography “John Adams”: “How unpardonable would it have been in you to have turned out a blockhead.”
Joshua Pradko is a senior studying American Studies.