Sunday, April 17, 2005


We Can Deserve It

Scott Johnson of Powerline links and excerpts from a speech by David McCullough. McCullough gave the talk at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar on American History and America’s Future. If you have time, read the entire speech, McCullough is a very wise historian and a fine writer. He also is an indispensible voice for anyone who wants to truly understand their own history and place in the world.

His greatest exhortation is a timeless call to not neglect our rich history:
The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we take for granted – as we should never take for granted – are all the work of other people who went before us. And to be indifferent to that isn’t just to be ignorant, it’s to be rude. And ingratitude is a shabby failing. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.

The study of history and history's actors is far too often derided or abandoned because of contemporary criticisms of ancient failings or faults. True, some of the great heroes of our history were far from perfect, our nation's history is full of blemishes, but what time in history and in what place has that ever NOT been true? McCullough:
Now those who wrote the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776 were not superhuman by any means. Every single one had his flaws, his failings, his weaknesses. Some of them ardently disliked others of them. Every one of them did things in his life he regretted. But the fact that they could rise to the occasion as they did, these imperfect human beings, and do what they did is also, of course, a testimony to their humanity. We are not just known by our failings, by our weaknesses, by our sins. We are known by being capable of rising to the occasion and exhibiting not just a sense of direction, but strength.

McCullough argues for a more effective (and thorough) teaching of history, not just because those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them, but because to learn history is to savor the past:
History isn’t just something that ought to be taught or ought to be read or ought to be encouraged because it’s going to make us a better citizen. It will make us a better citizen; or because it will make us a more thoughtful and understanding human being, which it will; or because it will cause us to behave better, which it will. It should be taught for pleasure: The pleasure of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive, which is what education is largely about.

McCullough recalls some deep wisdom that John Adams shared with his wife, and tracks down the source of his inspiration. This can tell us much about education, and underscore the great messages we lose in forgetting our history:
There’s a line in one of the letters written by John Adams where he’s telling his wife Abigail at home, “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.”

I was reading some correspondence written by George Washington and there was the same line. I thought, wait a minute, what’s going on? And I thought, they’re quoting something. So, as we all often do, I got down good old Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and I started going through the entries from the 18th century and bingo, there it was. It’s a line from the play Cato. They were quoting something that was in the language of the time. They were quoting scripture of a kind, a kind of secular creed if you will. And you can’t understand why they behaved as they did if you don’t understand that. You can’t understand why honor was so important to them and why they were truly ready to put their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor on the line. Those weren’t just words.

McCullough concludes with a letter that Abigail Adams sent to her son John Quincy Adams, upon a family decision to have John Quincy return to Europe despite a wretched prior trip, after which he said he vowed never to return.
Now, keep in mind that this is being written to a little kid and listen to how different it is from how we talk to our children in our time. She’s talking as if to a grownup. She’s talking to someone whom they want to bring along quickly because there’s work to do and survival is essential:

These are the times in which genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

Twenty years from now we will look back on these times of great necessity and recall what evidences there are of great virtue. And if we are able to rise to the great challenges we face -- not the least, confronting ignorance, fear, self-loathing, and passivity -- we must ensure that these vital lessons of our age are recorded, recalled, and extolled. Whether we win or not, "we can deserve it."

Portions of McCullough's speech: Reprinted by permission from IMPRIMIS, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College,

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