Author and Historian David McCullough speaks at Elon University Fall Convocation

By Daniel Temple

Oct. 23, 2008- Author and Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough was in town to lecture at the Elon Fall Convocation Ceremony. McCullough, who is widely considered one of the premier story tellers of our time, spoke about teaching and scholarship, citing certain individuals and events that embodied these ideals.

“I think it’s fitting,” said McCullough. “To be a part of a ceremony that endorses scholarship and teaching.”

Elon 2008 Fall Convocation

Elon 2008 Fall Convocation

McCullough talked about 3 teachers in particular, individuals he called “teachers of consequence”. These men and women, according to McCullough, helped progress the art of teaching, and subsequently, the art of learning.


Margaret Phelps

Margaret Phelps, as McCullough described, was a high school history teacher at Independence High School in Missouri, around the turn of the century.

“She was enthralling,” stated McCullough. “The amount of passion and energy she put into teaching history was simply unparalleled.”

Her most famous pupil, former President Harry Truman, claimed that Phelps was the best teacher he had ever had.

“Harry Truman loved reading and history,” said McCullough. “He was an educated man who never stopped learning, largely in part to Margaret Phelps.”


Louis Agassi

The second teacher of consequence McCullough talked about was Harvard professor and scholar, Louis Agassi. Agassi was, according to McCullough, “a wave of fresh air for Harvard University.”

“Agassi perceived that the upper latitudes of Europe had been shaped by glaciers,” said McCullough. “This changed the perception of the entire world.”

McCullough told one story in particular about Agassi that he felt personified the scholar, and the essence of learning in general.

The “ordeal of the fish”, as McCullough described it, was a process in which Agassi forced his new students to examine a dead, pickled fish for a period of time, using only their hands and eyes.

“This was one of the finest examples of learning and scholarship that I’ve ever heard of,” said McCullough. “I still keep a plaque above my desk that reads, “Look at the fish,” which reminds me to always keep learning and find out new things.”


Thornton Wilder

The third teacher McCullough talked about was one that he knew personally while he was a student at Yale. Thornton Wilder was one of the major influences in McCullough’s life.

“You could always see him around, in the library or around campus,” said McCullough. “It was one of the luckiest breaks I’ve ever had to have studied under Thornton Wilder.”

McCullough stated that out of everything he took away from Yale, it was the teaching that he remembered most.

“It was the teaching from people such as Thornton Wilder,” said McCullough, “that gave me the tools to better myself as a scholar.”


The Johnston Flood

McCullough went on to talk about the first book he ever wrote, about the tragic Johnston flood of 1889.

“The first book I ever read about the flood was simply terrible,” said McCullough. “And the second one I read was even worse.”

It was at this point McCullough decided to write a book on the subject and it was then he said he remembered what Thornton Wilder had taught him, which was to “write the book in a way that he would want to read it.”

Although at the time he did not consider himself a historian, McCullough immersed himself in the research for the book, using his own personal history with the Pennsylvania area to aid in his explorations.

The theme of the Johnston flood McCullough said, was “just because people are in positions of responsibility, doesn’t mean that they are necessarily responsible.”



The Brooklyn Bridge

Following his success with the Johnston flood book, McCullough says that he tried to avoid being typecast as a “disaster writer”. He said that he believed humanity isn’t always evil and bad natured, and that he wanted to do a book on a subject that showed creation and art rather than destruction.

So after discussing it with some friends, he decided to write about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although he knew nothing of the structural architecture and mathematics of the bridge, he said that he was “eager to learn all about it”.

McCullough said that part of the reason he felt so drawn to the building of the bridge was “that it came during a time known for corruption and scandal.”

“The Brooklyn Bridge was built during a politically unstable era of history,” said McCullough. “Yet here was this structure, built by imperfect men, made to last forever. Not just a great work of civil engineering but a work of art.”

McCullough added that we today can achieve something like the Brooklyn Bridge, but that it wouldn’t happen without educated, young people. He closed with some final words of advice for the students in the audience.

“Read, read, read,” McCullough said. “No matter how little television you watch, watch less. Today’s world with the information super highway is amazing but it’s not learning. History isn’t about dates and figures, it’s about ideas.”

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