David McCullough, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and New York Times’ best-selling author, appeared Monday night to more than 3,000 people in the Curb Event Center arena, enchanting them all with his charm, historical knowledge, educational philosophy and, surprisingly, even his singing. The final keynote presenter in Belmont’s “Art of Being Free” lecture series celebrating the 2008 Town Hall Presidential Debate, McCullough spoke on “Leadership and the History You Don’t Know.” The crowd was populated by numerous special guests including Mayor Karl Dean, former Senate Majority Leader Dr. Bill Frist and McCullough’s wife, Rosalie.
McCullough, who opened his remarks by commenting on how smitten he was with Nashville, focused his attention on the need for a much stronger emphasis on history in children’s education. He noted that revitalizing history education in the U.S. is part of his life’s mission because it is through the lens of history that Americans can truly find identity. “The history of our country is the most enthralling subject imaginable, but it’s often made tedious and irrelevant… We’re raising children in every part of the country who are by and large historically illiterate.”
Quoting from Dr. Margaret McFarland, the mentor of Fred Rogers, McCullough said, “What matters most in the classroom is attitude, and attitude isn’t taught, it’s caught.” Rather than increased salaries alone, McCullough advocated that educators deserve more respect and should be required to major in a subject, becoming experts in a specific area of knowledge beyond education alone. Still, he also strongly encouraged that education must occur outside classrooms; parents and families must actively engage. “We have to show [our children] what we love.”
McCullough also commented on the ability of history to ground citizens among present turmoil. “We’re living in a very difficult time, an uncertain and dangerous time,” McCullough said, though present issues certainly don’t compare to the worst eras the country has experienced, citing 1776, the Civil War, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the Great Depression. “But we always come through it… History is a source of strength, an aid to navigation in uncertain times.”
Borrowing from a conversation between Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Adams, the subject of one of McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning works, the author wrapped up his lecture by encouraging the audience to exemplify the “ambition to excel” rather than seeking money or power. “We can be cathedral builders… If this crisis today wakes us up to the need for participation, the joys of participation, then it will be well worth it.”
At the conclusion of Monday night’s question-and-answer session, Belmont’s Director of General Education Dr. Jeff Coker invited McCullough to embrace his moment on a “Nashville stage,” asking the well-received speaker for a song. McCullough gladly agreed, delighting the crowd with an a cappella rendition of Hank Williams’ classic “Hey Good Lookin’.”
Among his numerous accolades, McCullough was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in December 2006, and has been awarded more than 40 honorary degrees. He has twice received the Pulitzer Prize, for Truman and John Adams, and twice received the National Book Award, for The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback.