Off the Clock: A Brief History Lesson with David McCullough

Oct 9, 2015

Credit Riley Beggin/ KBIA

Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough spoke Wednesday evening at the Missouri Theatre on the lessons to be learned from the founding fathers. McCullough’s lecture marked the opening of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy, which supports the study of the American democratic tradition at MU.

McCullough has written biographies on historical figures like John Adams, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and—most recently—the Wright Brothers. In addition to his Pulitzers, he has been awarded the National Book Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

McCullough said that America’s founders shared some critical characteristics, like a sense of dedication, loyalty and an obligation to serve. Most of all, they drew revolutionary ideals from the scholars that came before them. McCullough said that for both the founders and for modern Americans, knowing the past means planning for the future.

“Patriotism isn’t just demonstrated by waving a lot of flags,” McCullough said. “And patriotism involved knowing who went before us. To me, having no interest in history is in its way unpatriotic.”

McCullough added that learning from the past requires a love of literature. One of his favorite historical figures, John Adams, never had much money but accumulated more than 8,000 books in his lifetime.

McCullough said this love of learning and reading showed an admirable measure of ambition. 

“Words matter,” McCullough said. “Words change history. Words stir the hearts of people, and lift their aspirations above the norm, above the mundane, above the selfish and self-serving.”

Before McCullough took the stage, a line of admirers snaked around the block. The crowd queued up again afterward to meet the decorated author.

“He really makes you want to know more about history,” said Sue Hamman, a Columbia resident and audience member. “We recently read the Wright Brothers. We’ve spent a lot of time in North Carolina. He just makes these people come alive and you feel so appreciative.”

Despite McCullough’s assertion of so-called “creeping amnesia” among youth today, plenty of young faces dotted the crowd.

Among them was MU freshman and clinical psychology major Roselie Chott, who started loving history when she took a class with an inspiring teacher her junior year of high school.

“When you have teachers that really know what they’re talking about and you know they’re interested in it, it makes me interested in it,” Chott said. “That’s kind of why I started liking it.”

Despite his success in historical work, McCullough’s still holds an interest in today’s democracy. He believes an ideal leader should possess the strong morals exemplified in the founders.

“I think the main thing we need are good people taking up their responsibility to serve their country in more demonstrative and open ways,” McCullough said. “Open in the sense that others will be inspired by their examples.”

The director of the newly opened Kinder Institute for Constitutional Democracy, Justin Dyer, has high hopes for the future of the program.

“In the future we’d like to do a lot of different things all with the core mission of promoting political thought and history education,” Dyer said. In addition to providing new programs for undergraduates and supporting graduate research, he looks forward to “doing more events like this for the community to try to bring people from the public into the intellectual life of the institute.”

He’s in luck: The institute’s celebrations continued Thursday morning, when Rich and Nancy Kinder announced a 25 million dollar endowment that will greatly expand the scope of the program.