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opinion | David McCullough Jr.

David McCullough — Boston’s gem

Historian David McCullough.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2011/Globe Staff

‘It’s better to look good than to be good,” said a new student of mine the other day and only half kidding. While the candor is unusual, the attitude is not. For those swept up in the whirl to appear impressive for the advantages they hope it will bring, high school is understood as little more than a means to an end, an end achieved by shining, by looking good. To them I offer the helpful example of someone important to me.

He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, my helpful example, two National Book Awards, two Parkman Prizes, and an Emmy. He has been awarded more than 40 honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was recently inducted into the French Legion of Honor. The first President Bush explained that he is not a historian, he is the historian. His books have sold in the many millions. Across 46 years none has ever been out of print. And several weeks ago, at age 81, on a 66-year-old typewriter, he finished his 10th, about the Wright brothers and the advent of flight.

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David McCullough is also, I can assert with unimpeachable authority, a wonderful, an exemplary, father and husband. And Pop has enjoyed all this, has achieved all this, because he loves and believes in his work. He holds true to his convictions. He prizes intelligence and integrity and the better angels of our nature, those qualities of character that have time and again led us through the dark and difficult patches. His books are monuments to the human spirit and the best kinds of innovation, dedication and accomplishment. So too has been his life. With faith in himself and enthusiasm for the day ahead — even still — he has at his work with all the bounding eagerness of a young swain in the morning sun. However appreciated, the commendations, the acclaim . . . these are unintended byproducts.

Ours, though, is the era of the selfie and twerking and Snapchats and Facebook trends and Twitter feeds and, often, scrambling after achievement for attention’s sake. And the arms race is on. Rather than discovering and dedicating themselves to their interests, or the greater good, rather than learning for the exhilaration of learning and let results follow as they will, rather than working hard as a simple matter of principle, too many of our young people have become nascent careerists maneuvering for advantage and material reward. Herded along, often, by well-meaning but fretful and micromanaging parents, they have become, many of them, what the writer William Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep,” who study the battle of Waterloo not because it’s interesting or historically significant, but because there’s going to be a test on Tuesday. And Tuesday’s test is about the semester grade which is about the GPA which is about admission to a prestigious college which is about a hefty net worth and social cachet. This isn’t every young person, certainly, but it sure is a lot of them.

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But, optimism undimmed, we persevere. What other would we do?

One need not look too closely to see much of my father in his books. It’s there in John and Abigail Adams’ indefatigable spirit, or Teddy Roosevelt’s, or Washington Roebling’s. It’s there in George Washington’s quiet and steadfast nobility, in Harry Truman’s unassuming virtue, in Augustus St. Gaudens’s muscular creativity. It’s there in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s modesty and industriousness and perseverance . . . and, like them, to everyone’s benefit, he has soared. How fortunate we are to have him.


David McCullough Jr. is a teacher at Wellesley High School.