Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian, David McCullough, is perhaps best known for his biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman. His most recent book, The Wright Brothers, is his third of a series on great accomplishments in technology (the other two portray the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and The Panama Canal).
What history teaches us, he says, is the importance of people and our roles as citizens in a democracy.History is about people… and people are the most interesting subject there is.David McCullough
“We can learn not just about law and politics, but about life, about being a good human being,” he remarks.
Some may contend that learning about history can be boring. But McCullough argues this should never be the case: “History is about people… and people are the most interesting subject there is.”
Baltimore, Ferguson, human rights, war, terrorism, social unrest, poverty, racism, global warming. We can limit our study of these to the issues or events themselves — or we can truly learn from them as stories about people. McCullough claims that history teaches us to foster respect and gratitude for those who came before us.
“People walk around with a great sense of patriotism and love of country, and don’t know anything about the history of our country,” he says.
He explains how this is like being in love with someone and having no idea of that person’s background or how he or she got to be the way they are. McCullough adds:
“The system only works if you understand its history and how it came to be — the ideals of our predecessors. To be ignorant of our stories is an expression of our ingratitude.”
But he insists this is not just about simply having knowledge on a subject.
“I never want to think of myself as an expert. Experts have all the answers. I have all the questions,” he says.
He mentions that all his books are about one of the first books he read: The Little Engine Who Could. Great technological accomplishments, like airplanes, bridges, and canals, can be seen as a metaphor of what people do against great odds and adversity, to work for our benefit.
“History fosters optimism,” McCullough says.
McCullough’s books are about optimism and determination, and how we can instill these qualities in ourselves by learning about people who came before us. This includes recognizing those among us now who are destined to become a part of history.
The Wright brothers taught us to fly. Yet, what is most important is not their invention, but their story. Whether we talk of technology, economics, politics, or social injustices, solutions arise from the stories of people. History matters because it is human. Seek the humanity and the answers will follow.