1776 and 9-11

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One of the smart things author David McCullough said last week when he spoke to the sold-out auditorium at the Free Library, (part of the subscription lecture series Steve and I go to with our friends Ed and Ann) was that in spite of what you may think — and many do — this is not the darkest time our country has lived through.

That’s nonsense, said McCullough (pictured above), of the post-9/11 sentiment that the world is scarier now than ever.

McCullough, a jovial white-haired man who spoke for over an hour without notes and with a case of laryngitis lurking in his throat, said Pearl Harbor and 1776 were far darker times. The 71-year old author of the Pulitzer Prize winning books “Truman” and “John Adams,”should know. His new book, which took him six years to write, is “1776.”

The Revolutionary War was one that lasted eight and a half years — our country’s longest war but for Vietnam, he said. Fought by farmers and boys who often went without shoes and in the worst months without food and ravaged by disease, the war was one in which “25,000 Americans lost lives — That’s one percent of the population at that time. One percent today is 3 million people,” he said, a number that shocked all in attendance.

McCullough’s a fluid storyteller in his books as well as in his talk. He believes in history and he believes we’re not teaching it properly to our children. History should be taught as stories he said. Quoting:

Our reality today is that our young men and women are historically illiterate. It’s not their fault. We have to change how we train our teachers. There should be no more education degrees. You can’t teach something you don’t love and you can’t love something you don’t know. Excited teachers are the best. And textbooks are almost universally dreadful. It’s as if they’re made to dispel interest!

But it’s not just teachers. The problem is us. We have to talk about history and politics at dinner and take our children to historic sites.

He went on to say that passion about issues is the thing that separates us now from the men and women who lived in 1776. That and a knowledge and love of books and ideas. “America had the highest standard of living in the world at that time. They weren’t poor and suffering.” He noted that all the founding fathers and mothers (like Abagail Adams who he sees as a great role model) read books and were enlightenment thinkers. Many of them were Quakers and yet they went to war believing it was a just cause. They lived at a time when “preparing for the worst was commonplace. Hardly one of them had not seen death. We owe them so much.”

McCullough, by the way, is a proponent of arts education and he deplores the cutting of art and music from school budgets.

I’ve read two of McCullough’s books (“Truman” and “John Adams”) and loved every page. They made me cry and laugh and understand the personalities behind the times. I’m on my library’s waiting list for “1776.” Can’t wait.

More on McCullough, a Pittsburgh, PA native in this Pittsburgh Post Gazette article. And here is where I found out the writer was the narrator for the film “Seabiscuit!” McCullough’s on a killer “1776” book tour that’s totally of our time, 2005. Here’s the schedule.

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