The outstanding historian David McCullough passed away this week. In February 2005 in Arizona at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, McCullough gave a speech titled "Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are."
His observations pertain to the study of LDS Church history. Young and new Latter-day Saints have difficulty understand our history because important events and historical records have been mowed over by modern theories and interpretations, particularly regarding SITH and M2C.
In the excerpts below (in blue) I offer some applications to LDS history (in red). Emphasis added.
The speech was adapted and reprinted in 2008, here:
Former President Harry S. Truman once remarked that the history we don’t know is the only new thing in the world.
For young and new Latter-day Saints, it's a "new thing" for them to learn that Joseph Smith translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. Another '"new thing" is learning that the hill Cumorah in New York state is actually the hill Cumorah (and hill Ramah) of the Book of Mormon.
Picking up on a related theme, the late Daniel Boorstin, an eminent historian, Librarian of Congress, and griend of mine, wrote that planning for the future without a sense of the past is similar to planting cut flowers and hoping for the best.
Today, the new generation of young Americans are like a field of cut flowers, by-and-large historically illiterate. This does not bode well for our future.
The same is true for young and new Latter-day Saints, who are easily confused by SITH and M2C because they are illiterate on those topics.
After delivering a talk at the University of Missouri, I spoke with a young woman who said that until my talk she had not known that all of the original 13 colonies were on the east coast. How could a student at a fine university not know this, I wondered.
Ask most young Latter-day Saints about the hill Cumorah or the Urim and Thummim and they have no clue about what Joseph and his contemporaries.
All of us who are educators, parents, and writers bear a great responsibility: We must communicate to the younger generation that Americans — as individuals, but also collectively as a nation — cannot truly know who we are or where we are going unless we know where we have been.
We should value what our forebears — and that includes our own parents and grandparents — have done for us; otherwise our history will simply slip away. If we inherit an old oil painting and no one tells us that it is a priceless work of art, then we’ll probably lose interest in it, either sticking it in a closet or selling it. Of course, history is not static like a painting, but eternally fascinating, because events and people can be freshly examined with new techniques and perspectives. Each generation, we peel back biases that have blinded those before us. The more we know about the past enables us to ask richer and more provocative questions about who we are today.
We also must tell the next generation one of the great truths of history: that no past event was preordained. Every battle, election, and revolution could have turned out differently at any point along the way, just as a person’s own life can change unpredictably. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, a fact that is not as self-evident as it might sound, particularly to a young person.
And we would do well to remind young people that nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, and Washington did not walk around thinking, “Isn’t it fascinating living in the past?” They lived in the present, of course, just as we do today, every bit uncertain of the future as we are. How easy it is for historians and biographers — or any of us — to look backward in time and judge the actions of others. Yet we are not making those tough decisions in real time with definite uncertainties.
Family, teachers, friends, rivals, and competitors have all shaped us. So, too, have those who lived long before us. Think about symphony composers, painters, poets, and writers of great literature: We walk around every day quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Pope without even knowing it. We believe that its our way of speaking, but it’s actually what we have been given.
Naturally, Joseph Smith translated the plates using his own lexicon, which is exactly what we expect of any translator.
The laws that govern us, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we often unfortunately take for granted, represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past. Acting indifferent to this fact does not just smack of ignorance, but rudeness. How can we claim indifference to learning about those people who made it possible for us to become citizens of the world’s greatest country? The freedoms we enjoy are not just a birthright, but something for which millions have struggled, suffered, and died.
Character and Destiny
None of the writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia during that fateful summer of 1776 were superhuman; each had flaws, failings, and weaknesses. Some ardently disliked others. All said and did things he regretted. Yet the fact that these imperfect human beings rose to the occasion and performed as they did testifies to their humanity. It is our ability then and now to rise to the occasion and exhibit our strengths—not our failings, weaknesses, and sins—that define us as Americans.
The desire to find out what’s not working, fix it, and then maybe get it to work is an American quality and our guiding star. The founding fathers had no prior experience in revolutions or nation-making. The faces of these men, framed by powdered hair and marked by awkward-looking teeth, stare out from old paintings and the money in our wallets, like elder statesmen. But, when George Washington took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, he was 43-years-old, the oldest of the lot. Jefferson penned the Declaration at 33, while John Adams signed it at 40. Benjamin Rush — a founder of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia and one of the most interesting founding fathers — was only 30 years old.
The freedoms we enjoy represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past
Our Failure, Our Duty
There’s no secret to teaching history well or making it interesting. Barbara Tuchman summed up what every teacher, parent, and writer should know in two words: “Tell stories.” E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition of “story.” If you say that the king died and then the queen died of grief, then that becomes a story, because it calls for empathy on the part of both the storyteller and the listener. We need historians who have the heart and humanity necessary to help students imagine the lives of people who have lived in the past and were just as human as we are today.
Listening to the Past
Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that we should read history because it helps us behave better. So, too, we ought to read history because it breaks down dividers between the disciplines of science, medicine, philosophy, art, and music, which is all part of the human story. History enables us to understand the interconnections. Understanding the 18th century, for example, depends on familiarity with its vocabulary, because their words often mean something different than they do today. In a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” The word “deserve” has such a different meaning today when all that matters is success, getting ahead, and rising to the top.
Adam’s letter indicates that while God controls the outcome of the war, the colonists can control how they behave. They can “deserve” success. That line practically lifted me out of my chair when I first read it. Three weeks later I found the same word in George Washington’s correspondence. It occurred to me that they both were quoting somebody else. I pulled down Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations from the bookshelf and scanned entries from the 18th century. Bingo, I found it in Joseph Addison’s play, Cato . Adams, Washington, and others were quoting the language of the time, a kind of secular creed if you will. It is impossible to fathom their behavior without knowing why honor mattered so much that they put their lives and fortunes on the line for it. Those were not just words.
We hear talk frequently these days about the difficult, dangerous times we live in. Yet our nation has lived through darker times, although this is not evident listening to those who broadcast the news. The year 1776 was perhaps the darkest time in our history. Or what about the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines sank our oil tankers in plain sight off the coats of Florida and New Jersey? Our recruits drilled with wooden rifles. Our air force did not exist, and the navy was badly hurt. The Nazi machine looked unstoppable. After Pearl Harbor, when Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic and gave a magnificent speech, saying that we had not journeyed this far because we were made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.
History is not just a subject that ought to be taught or read because it will make us a better citizen, although it will. Nor should we encourage young people to embrace history only because it creates more thoughtful and understanding human beings. Nor should we only share stories about the past because we will behave better. History should be taught for pleasure. The joy of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive. And that is what education is largely about.