Recently, my friend who works at the World Affairs Council in Dallas invited me to a talk by the author David McCullough. McCullough, the writer of such books as John Adams and 1776, is here in the Lone Star state promoting his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. His new work explores the lives of 18th and 19th century Americans living and studying in Paris.
The World Affairs Council was exceptionally generous and comped me and my colleagues at Trinity Valley School five tickets to watch Mr. McCullough talk about his research and new book. You can view a great website that includes the several talks by the author and interactive timelines here.
David McCullough’s talk was vivid and engaging. He used no visual aids and focused on the main themes of the book and highlighted his primary points. Most inspiring, he spoke about the role of educator’s in American Society – that they are important for shaping the future of our country. He went so far to say that his new book is primarily about teachers, as all of its subjects returned to the United States and taught (in some capacity or another, formally and informally). Most pointedly, he began his talk by saying:
“I think our teachers are the most important people in our society and yes they should be paid more and given a lot more of our attention, appreciation, and help. This country was founded on a belief in education.”
He then quoted Thomas Jefferson saying:
“No nation has been permitted to live in ignorance with impunity.”
He then began to discuss the core topic of his book, the early relationship between France and the birth of America. Many Americans forget the intimate and joined relationship that nascent America shared with France, preferring to focus more on our connection with Great Britain. However, as McCullough pointed out:
- Our capital city was designed by French-born architect and civil engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant
- The Louisiana Purchase allowed America to, in an instance, more than double in size
- The Statue of Liberty was given as a gift to the American people by the Republic of France
- Our maps and geographical points often are marked with French Names (New Orleans, Marseille, Baton Rouge, Paris, etc).
- More American servicemen are buried in France than they are in any other country, save the United States.
He highlighted the academic expertise and renown of French Universities, especially in the 19th century when they were the pinnacle of the West. Most specifically La Sarbonne, the prominent academic institute of art and science, and the Ecole de Médecine (the preeminent Medical School in the World). At this time, the French government provided University education for free (even to ‘foreigners’), they only needed to pay their transportation to France (which was expensive, long, uncomfortable, and dangerous) as well as room and board.
He was also quick to point out that the Americans living in France at this time were not expatriates living away from their country due to some form of disconnect or frustration at their home country. In fact, most of these Americans were incredibly patriotic and wanted to bring their new-found knowledge and wisdom back to their own country – which they all ultimately did.
He proceeded to highlight some of the lives that he explored in the book. What struck me was who he chose and why. He intentionally largely avoided politicians and generals (although not entirely) as he pointed out that history is made by more than just politics and war. He focused primarily on artists, scientists, inventors, and philosophic statesmen (both men and women). He pointed out that the arts are as (or more) significant in shaping a culture than specific events, indicating the great cultures of the past whose history we know very little about but whose art still graces the walls of our museums. He quoted President Kennedy with these words inscribed in the wall of the Kennedy Center,
“This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor”
He finished up his talk emphasizing the importance of being globally aware citizens and incorporating broader perspectives and experiences in the classroom. We live in a connected world and finances and time are no longer the impediments they once were. If we are to stay a tour de force in the world, we cannot ignore our relationship and kinship with the world around us.