The Corner

An Afternoon with David McCullough

In today’s Wall Street Journal, I have a Weekend Interview with author David McCullough. A month ago, I spoke with him at the Boston Public Library about his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, which I review in the latest issue of National Review. Our conversation was a delight, and it touched on many topics, such as the teaching of history and our appreciation of teachers. Unfortunately, McCullough thinks both are subpar these days. Here’s the lede:

‘We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, “I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don’t know.” Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. “It’s shocking.”

You can read the whole thing here.

In writing the piece, one thing I regret is my being unable to fit in a story that I think captures McCullough’s hands-on approach to history perfectly. After our interview, he took me on a field trip around the library. At the end, he brought me to a lion statue that overlooked the main staircase in the library’s foyer. Standing next to the lion on the stairs, he told me to reach out and feel the statue’s coarse fur coat. As I complied, he informed me that the sculptor, Louis Saint-Gaudens, never polished the statue because he went on a bender and died before he could finish it.

Then he instructed me to pet the lion’s tail, which lay near the banister. Unexpectedly, my hand slipped easily over the glossy stone. Over the years, he explained, the children who visited the library patted the tail and thereby smoothed the rough surface.

“They did his work for him,” he joked.

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