Historian David Mccullough: Using Television to Teach

Article excerpt

WHAT IF the nation turned over its key waterways to waste operators, allowing them to dump as much garbage into the Hudson, Mississippi and Missouri rivers as was possible and profitable? Most of us would react with outrage.

But author David McCullough suggests that's just what this country has done with another precious resource - its airwaves.

"Television has been mostly destructive," McCullough said. "We are using one one-hundredth of its potential."

The insight isn't unique. But the punch comes from a heavyweight - a man who on the one hand has profited from his connection to the airwaves and, by most accounts, has enriched them.

David McCullough, author and historian, may be best known as the narrator (he was a writer as well) for public television's 1990 "Civil War" series. Fourteen million Americans watched. He is also the voice behind the weekly historical PBS series "The American Experience." His 1,000-page biography "Truman" sold 1 million copies and earned him the Pulitzer Prize.

McCullough looked out the window of his suite at the Hyatt Regency at Union Station, past the Milles Fountain to a stoplight on Chestnut Street where several cars were idling.

"Right now, at this minute, think of all the drivers across the country with their motors running, doing nothing, producing nothing. Then imagine all the people sitting at home watching all that goo on television every night. All their brains are doing nothing.

"They are not writing letters, not painting pictures, not building cabinets, not making music, not chatting with their children, not reading them stories, not visiting with their friends. They are not living.

"Television has become a substitute for life. "And it's artificial. And it's fake. And it's done for the most self-serving and greedy purposes. The people who are responsible for it have no concerns for us."

McCullough, 60, was here recently to accept the 26th annual St. Louis Literary Award given by the Associates of St. Louis University Libraries Inc. Previous award winners include Tennessee Williams, John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty.

This is his first award for literary merit, and that excited him. His Pulitzer, and his National Book Awards, were for what he considers the more narrow category of history. McCullough was an English major at Yale who dreamt of writing novels and only "accidentally" turned to history. His first job, in 1955, was as a writer at Sports Illustrated, but in those first months on the job he read history books that set him afire.

He worked on book ideas at night and on weekends for years while moving along to other day jobs on the writing staffs of the U.S. Information Agency and American Heritage Magazine. His first book, "The Great Bridge," about the Brooklyn Bridge and its ancestor the Eads Bridge, was published in 1972.

For the past 12 years he has been retelling stories of America's past on television. His deep, baritone voice, his unflinching gaze framed by his thick white brows and hair make you think of Walter Cronkite.

"I am mostly concerned about how television can be used to teach people, how it can be used not just to inform but to enlarge the experience of the nation, to make this a more vivid and intelligent culture," McCullough said in an interview after the awards ceremony.

He said he has tried "to light a candle" with "The American Experience" and in the 1980s with PBS' "Smithsonian World." He has considered writing a book about how the airwaves are abused.

"But then I'd have to watch all that stuff on television, and that would be like being sentenced," he said. …