David McCullough Accepts the 1995 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

November 1995



New York, November 15, 1995

David McCullough with his wife Rosalee Barnes, at the 1995 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
David McCullough with his wife Rosalee Barnes, at the 1995 National Book Awards. Photo Credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

Jonathan Newcomb, President and CEO of Simon & Schuster: Nearly half of the almost 200 million adult citizens in the United States today are neither proficient enough to write a simple letter nor able to read and understand a bus map. Even more are illiterate when it comes to basic mathematical skills or the fundamentals of our country’s rich and diverse history.

Unquestionably, there is a widespread crisis in American education today. The United States may be the world’s epicenter of scientific and medical advancement, the arts, and entertainment, yet as a whole, we are a land where something is amiss with how we teach our children. Our students’ understanding of civics and history and scores in fundamental literacy, mathematics, and science are disappointing.

As the world’s largest educational and English-language book publisher, Simon & Schuster is very much involved in trying to fashion solutions to there problems. Along with other publishers and a growing number of companies in other fields, we are committing a vast range of creative resources to bring about a real difference in attitudes and achievement rates.

Although I thought I understood the challenges facing education in America today, I was not prepared for what I heard on November 15, 1995. It was on that night that David McCullough was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, one of the most prestigious honors an author can receive.

In accepting the award, David, without the benefit of notes, made an extraordinarily poignant speech about perhaps the most vital aspect of education in America today…our understanding of who we are as a nation, our understanding of American history. His message was an emotional and intellectual call to arms on behalf of a subject too frequently lost and forgotten in our classrooms. Everyone there was moved by the clarity and significance of David’s words, delivered with force and compassion, sparkling with inner conviction and outward challenge.

Publishers that we are, the Simon & Schuster contingent who hung on David’s words that autumn night decided that we should share his message with and audience greater than the five hundred or so who had gathered to salute a distinguished historian. We want to join him in emphasizing to the students, educators, and parents of this country the importance of studying history.

As David McCullough argues, history informs us where we come from as a people and as a nation, what we have done, and why. It provides us with a map, often imprecise in its details, taking us from our beginnings to where we are now. And if we are good enough students, it can serve as a blueprint for who we truly want to be and are capable of becoming.


David McCullough: Thank you. Thank you so very much. I feel more pleased and honored by this award than I can adequately say. I want to express my gratitude to the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation and to the Reader’s Digest Association and to all of you.

I am also deeply appreciative of the help and encouragement I’ve been given by a great many people over the years, several of whom are here tonight.

I am indebted above all, in countless ways, to my family: my mother and father, Ruth and Christian Hax McCullough, my brothers Hax, George, and James McCullough, and to my own five children, Melissa, David, Bill, Geoffrey, and Dorie, all of whom have played a part in my work and given me the best of reasons to keep working. And above all to my wife, Rosalee Barnes McCullough, editor-in-chief, mission control, strong partner, and best friend, the finest person I know. And by far the best dancer.

I am hugely indebted to an inspiring teacher, Vincent Scully of Yale; to my old friends and former fellow editors at American Heritage, Alvin Josephy and Richard Ketchum; to Peter Schwed, Dick Snyder, Michael Korda, Sophie Sorkin, Frank and Eve Metz, all of Simon & Schuster who have been my publishers from the start; and to my friend and literary agent, Morton Janklow, who has been, in recent years, one of the spirited, refreshing sides of a very different life as my work became better known, and who has given me some of the best advice I’ve had from anybody about many things besides books.

I must also thank for their shining example and friendship writers Conrad Richter, Walter Lord, Barbara Tuchman, Bruce Catton, Paul Horgan, and Wallace Stegner.

And let me include, too, how much I owe to the throbbing, steadfast city of my childhood, wartime Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to this, the greatest of our cities, New York. Like so many of you, I couldn’t wait to get here. It was here I got my start, here I discovered that wondrous window on the world and on the nation’s past the New York Public Library, here, with the Brooklyn Bridge, that I found a story like no other.

It is seldom that anyone ever receives so handsome a tribute as I do tonight, or is offered the opportunity to address so distinguished an audience with such influence as you have on our country. So I wish to speak about something much on my mind.

We, in our time, are raising a new generation of Americans who, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate.

The situation is serious and sad. And it is quite real, let there be no mistake. It has been coming on for a long time, like a creeping disease, eating away at the national memory. While the clamorous popular culture races on, the American past is slipping away, out of site and out of mind. We are losing our story, forgetting who we are and what it’s taken to come this far.

Warning signals, in special studies and reports, have been sounded for years, and most emphatically by the Bradley Report of 1988. Now, we have the blunt conclusions of a new survey by the Education Department: The decided majority, some 60 percent, of the nation’s high school seniors haven’t even the most basic understanding of American history. The statistical breakdowns on specific examples are appalling.

But I speak also from experience. On a winter morning on the campus of one of our finest colleges, in a lively Ivy League setting with the snow falling outside the window, I sat with a seminar of some twenty-five students, all seniors majoring in history, all honors students-the cream of the crop. “How many of you know who George Marshall was?” I asked. None. Not one.

At a large university in the Midwest, a young woman told me how glad she was to have attended my lecture, because until then, she explained, she had never realized that the original thirteen colonies were all on the eastern seaboard.

Who’s to blame? We are.

Everywhere in the country there are grade school and high school teachers teaching history who have had little or no history in their own education. Our school system, the schools we are responsible for, could rightly be charged with educational malpractice.

Can we expect some jolting national alarm to sound? Will there be in these remaining years of the 1990s some sensational event like Sputnik in the 1950s, to shock us into a realization of the true nature of the situation? Probably not.

But something must be done. And we can begin by asking a few fundamental questions.

Do we really care about standards of performance any more?

Are we read to accept the reality that in a government of the people it is not some longed-for leader who will save the day? If we’re looking for leadership, the place to look is in the mirror.

Too many teachers have little if any real understanding of what they’re teaching, let alone that vitality and passion for the subject that makes a great teacher so effective. If you think back to your own time in school, the courses you liked best and did best in were almost certainly the courses taught by the teachers you liked best. And the teachers you liked best were almost certainly those who were excited about the material and conveyed that excitement to you.

We have to start training teachers to teach history-and grade school teachers especially. We have to begin early with children. The earlier the better. We have to get back to basics. And let’s not be quite so bedazzled by the information revolution, by all the glittering promise of information highways.

Information isn’t learning. Information isn’t education. We have to have better teachers and we have to have better books.


We need better textbooks. We need more and better biographies for beginning readers. Too much of what’s written as history for our children is contrived by committee. It’s an assembly and it’s deadly. It reminds me of the old piano teacher’s lament, “I hear you play all the notes, but I hear no music.”

So why bother? “That’s history,” is the expression now. That’s done with, junk for the trash heap. Why history?

History shows us how to behave. History teaches, reinforces what we believe in, what we stand for, and what we ought to be willing to stand up for. History is-or should be-the bedrock of patriotism, not the chest-pounding kind of patriotism but the real thing, love of country.

At their core, the lessons of history are largely lessons in appreciation. Everything we have, all our great institutions, hospitals, universities, libraries, this city, our laws, our music, art, poetry, our freedoms, everything is because somebody went before us and did the hard work, provided the creative energy, provided the money, provided the belief. Do we disregard that?

Indifference to history isn’t just ignorant, it’s rude. It’s a form of ingratitude.

I’m convinced that history encourages, as nothing else does, a sense of proportion about life, gives us a sense of the relative scale of our own brief time on earth and how valuable that is.

What history teaches it teaches mainly by example. It inspires courage and tolerance. It encourages a sense of humor. It is an aid to navigation in perilous times. We are living now in an era of momentous change, of huge transitions in all aspects of life-here, nationwide, worldwide-and this creates great pressures and tensions. But history shows that times of change are the times when we are most likely to learn. This nation was founded on change. We should embrace the possibilities in these exciting times and hold to a steady course, because we have a sense of navigation, a sense of what we’ve been through in times past and who we are.

Think how tough our predecessors were. Think what they had been through. There’s no one in this room who hasn’t an ancestor who went through some form of hell. Churchill in his great speech in the darkest hours of the Second World War, when he crossed the Atlantic, reminded us, “We haven’t journeyed this far because we are made of sugar candy.”

Now history isn’t just good for you in a civic way. It isn’t just something you take to be a better citizen. It does do that, and that in itself would be reason enough to stress its importance. “Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that.

But, I think, what it really comes down to is that history is an extension of life. It both enlarges and intensifies the experience of being alive. It’s like poetry and art. Or music. And it’s ours, to enjoy. If we deny our children that enjoyment, that adventure in the larger time among the greater part of the human experience. We’re cheating them out of a full life.

There’s no secret to making history come alive. Barbara Tuchman said it perfectly: “Tell stories.” The pull, the appeal is irresistible, because history is about two of the greatest of all mysteries-time and human nature.

How lucky we are. How lucky we are to enjoy in our work and in our lives, the possibilities, the precision and reach, the glories of the English language. How lucky we are, how very lucky we are, to live in this great country, to be Americans-Americans all.