Since the September 11 attacks, historian David McCullough has been carrying a message across the country: Americans should look to their history.
“Yes, this is a time full of shadows and fear,” he says in a conversation with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole. ”But we have been through worse before and we have faced more difficult days before. We have shown courage and determination, and skillful and inventive and courageous and committed responses to crisis before. We should draw on our story, we should draw on our history as we’ve never drawn before.”
McCullough, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning John Adams, believes the nation’s schools are falling short. From twenty-five years of experience speaking on college campuses, he finds that students in institutions of higher learning know less history than ever before. “I think we are raising a generation of young Americans who are, to a very large degree, historically illiterate.” He wants not just better training for elementary and high school teachers, but for the teachers themselves to be more engaged. He quotes his favorite Founding Father, John Adams, who writes in the Massachusetts constitution that education is necessary to promote wisdom, knowledge, and virtue among the people, and therefore it is the duty of legislators of the future “to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.”
We meet some teachers who are engaged in just the way McCullough suggests. They are the scholar-actors of the Chautauqua, in which historical figures are brought to life and interact with audiences. The big blue-striped tents are going up from Wye Mills to the Dakotas this summer. Jeff Smith, who teaches at Lindenwood University in St. Louis, will be performing as the explorer William Clark, and another professor, Charles Everett Pace of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, will portray his slave York. The hardest audience question may be about Clark’s failure to free York after his service to the expedition. Jeff Smith says, “It doesn’t make sense with Clark’s other radical views, but Clark is a Southerner. And he’s also a real person who has as many inconsistencies as the rest of us.”
The professors build their characters from their research. “Each scholar comes to his or her own conclusions as to the meaning of that character,” says Pace. “There are times when there are different interpretations between characters. . . and that is the heart and soul of the Chautauqua.”
On the stage this summer there will be a Dolley Madison, a Sojourner Truth, a Thomas Jefferson, a John Adams, and a Benjamin Franklin. For a week in each town, the Founding Fathers among them will once again debate the nature of our democracy. John Adams may be David McCullough’s favorite, but filmmaker Ellen Hovde picks another--Ben Franklin. “Franklin is the most human and the most interesting and the brightest of the Founding Fathers,” she says. She and two colleagues are setting out to prove that contention in a three-part film airing this fall.
The film takes Ben Franklin from a poor boy with one Dutch dollar in his pocket to the toast of Paris during the American Revolution. “My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuffboxes, on rings, busts,” he writes his daughter Sally. “The numbers sold are incredible. My portrait is a best-seller. . . . Your father’s face is now as well known as the man in the moon.”