5 Questions For David McCullough — Historian and Author

By Jeremy Smerd

Jul. 14, 2006

Americans today get their history lessons from David McCullough, the country’s pre-eminent historian, a two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner and author of best-sellers John Adams and 1776. McCullough, a keynote speaker last month at the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference, grew up in Pittsburgh and was an English major at Yale University before he “backed into history,” he says. McCullough recently spoke with Workforce Management staff writer Jeremy Smerd.

    Workforce Management: What might a historian offer businesses more concerned with tomorrow than yesterday?

    David McCullough: Well, I like to quote a wonderful line from a friend of mine, Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress: “Trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers.” A sense of history gives one not only a view of what went before, but it also conveys the very realistic idea that we will be judged by history and that we are part of history. History is a way to measure ourselves against past performances. When we look at the way people faced up to past problems, broken hearts and broken promises, we can ask ourselves: How are we doing when faced with circumstances we don’t like?

    WM: On an individual level, how is history relevant to people in business?

    McCullough: Anybody who serves as a leader or who aspires to leadership must understand history and can learn far more about leadership in history than any other way. The lessons of history are manifold, to say the least.

    WM: Why are you so passionate about history?

    McCullough: We are raising a generation of young Americans who are historically illiterate, and this is a very serious problem. It’s a shame. It’s unnecessary. And it can be corrected.

    WM: Aside from your history class in high school, how else did you develop your passion for the past?

    McCullough: I grew up at a time when people had dinner together. The talk at dinner, again and again, was about history. It wasn’t labeled history; it was what went on in the old days of Pittsburgh. What happened to my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather; the labor troubles and what the steel mills were like in those days.

    WM: And how does understanding history help us deal with the challenge of managing workforces?

    McCullough: The person who picks up a biography or history book that deals with human events wants to know about people and why things are the way they are, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty. I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve received that told me my biography of John Adams, which came out in 2001, helped them get through the aftermath of September 11th. When September 11th happened, there were people on television and in the press saying this was the deepest, darkest, most uncertain, dangerous time we had ever been through. September 11th was without question the worst single day in American history. It is a dangerous, difficult time and it’s a far more dangerous time than people like to keep in mind, but 1776 was a far darker time; so was 1942. Knowing that, you are more inclined to take what troubles we have with a little more backbone.  

Workforce Management, July 17, 2006, p. 9Subscribe Now!

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with