David McCullough, a historian, biographer, author,
and host of the PBS program The American Experience,
received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree
during the ceremony.
President Austin, members of the Board of Trustees,
distinguished faculty, members of the Class of 1999 - the
Great Class of 1999 - parents, friends, ladies and gentlemen.
I have an interest in science and the natural
sciences appeal particularly. I've written about the work
of Louis Agassiz on glaciers. I've written about the work
of Miriam Rothchild on fleas. (Did you know that if you were
a flea, you could jump as high as Rockefeller Center? What
is more you could do it 30,000 times without stopping).
I've written books in which science, medicine,
and, technology all play a part. I don't believe it's possible
to understand history without a sense of the impact of science,
medicine, and technology -- certainly not the history of
our own time.
Over the years a number of engineers have been
kind enough to help me understand how such marvels as the
Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal were built. And my experience
is that it's possible with science and technology to understand
more than you might imagine, and, furthermore, find it extremely
interesting, if someone is good enough to put it in English
I've found considerable pleasure reading into
the lives of scientists and engineers of the past, and often
in their own writings I've been well-advised in other ways
I think of the great American botanist, Liberty
Hyde Bailey of Cornell, who when a woman wrote to ask
his advice on what to do about the dandelions in her lawn,
replied,"Learn to love them."
But it is the humanities that have come first
and that count above all for me. I am an English major who
happened into history. I am a reader who decided to try to
write the kind of books he loved to read.
So it's the banner of the humanities that I carry
and happily. It is why I feel so honored to take part in
this high occasion and why I want so much to say what I have
To perceive clearly and make sense of the time
in which one lives is always difficult, and moreso in the
midst of rapid change. Paleantologists speak of what they
call "punctuated equilibrium," the idea that evolution doesn't
occur at a steady even pace over time, but happens in bursts.
The fossil record of sea urchins, for example, may show little
or no variation over millions of years, then suddenly change
greatly in no time at all, geologically speaking.
It's a concept that might apply to us. Change,
tremendous change is all around, and acceleration faster
than we know. And as the world changes, we are changed. Electronic
marvels proliferate by geometric proportions. Everything
moves faster and our notions of time and space adjust of
necessity, whether we realize it or not. Information is available
as never before and at the touch of a finger. Information
has become an industry, a commodity to be packaged, promoted,
and marketed incessantly. The tools for "accessing" data
grow ever more wonderous and ubiquitous and essential if
we're to keep in step, we've come to believe. All hail the
Web, the Internet, the Information Highway.
We're being sold the idea that information is
learning and we're being sold a bill of goods.
Information isn't learning. Information isn't
wisdom. It isn't common sense necessarily. It isn't kindness.
Or trustworthiness. Or good judgement. Or imagination. Or
a sense of humor. Or courage. It doesn't tell us right from
Knowing the area of the State of Connecticut in
square miles, or the date on which the United Nations Charter
was signed, or the jumping capacity of a flea maybe be useful
or valuable, but it isn't learning of itself.
If information were learning, you could become
educated by memorizing the World Almanac. Were you to memorize
the World Almanac, you wouldn't be educated. You'd be weird.
My message is in praise of the greatest of all
avenues to learning, to wisdom, adventure, pleasure, insight,
to understanding human nature, understanding ourselves and
our world and our place in it.
I rise on this beautiful morning, here in this
center of learning to sing again the old faith in books.
In reading books. Reading for life, all your life.
Nothing ever invented provides such sustenance,
such infinite reward for time spent as a good book.
Thomas Jefferson told John Adams he could not
live without books. Adams, who through a long life read more
even and more deeply than Jefferson and who spent what extra
money he ever had on books, wrote to Jefferson at age 79
of a particular set of books he longed for on the lives of
the saints, all forty-seven volumes.
. . . Once upon a time in the dead of winter in
Dakota territory, with the temperature well below zero, young
Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat, accompanied
by two of his ranch hands, down-stream on the Little Missouri
River in chase of a couple of thieves who had stolen his
prized row boat. After days on the river, he caught up and
got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester, at which
point they surrendered. Then, after finding a man with a
team and a wagon, Roosevelt set off again to haul the thieves
cross-country to justice. He left the ranch hands behind
to tend to the boat, and walked alone behind the wagon, his
rifle at the ready. They were headed across the snow covered
wastes of the Bad Lands to the rail head at Dickinson, and
Roosevelt walked the whole way, 40 miles. It was an astonishing
feat, what might be called a defining moment in that eventful
life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during
that time, he managed to read all of Anna
I often think of that when I hear people say they
haven't time to read.
There's always time to read. And if your experience,
you of the Class of 1999, is anything like my own, the best,
most important books you will ever read are still ahead of
"Education is not the filling of a pail," Yeats wrote," but
the lighting of a fire."
I have some calculations for you to consider.
Reportedly the average America watches 28 hours
of television every week, or approximately four hours a day.
The average person, I'm told, reads at a rate of 250 words
So, based on these statistics, were the average
American to spend those four hours a day with a book, instead
of watching television, the average American could, in a
- The complete poems of T.S. Eliot;
- Two plays by Thornton Wilder, including Our
- The complete poems of Maya Angelou;
- Faulkner's The
Sound and the Fury;
Great Gatsby; and
Book of Psalms.
That's all in one week.
If the average American were to forsake television
for a second week, he or she could read all of Moby
Dick, including the part about whales and made a good
start, if not finish, The
Read for pleasure. Read what you like, and all
you like. Read literally to your heart's content. Let one
book lead to another. They nearly always do.
Read, read, read, is my commencement advice.
Take up a great author, new or old, and read everything
he or she has written. Read about places you've never been.
Read biography, history. Read the books that have changed
history -- Tom Paine's Common
Sense, the Autobiography
of Frederick Douglass, Rachel Carson's Silent
I love the mysteries of Ruth Rendell and the letters
of E.B. White. I have an old copy of Wind,
Sand and the Stars by St. Exupery that I would hate
ever to part with. I'm particularly fond of Carson McCullers
and Wallace Stegner, and for a book I'm working on I'm having
the best possible time reading writers of the eighteenth
century - De Foe, Sterne, Fielding, and the amazing Tobias
Smollet. To judge by their prose I can't help but feel that
the quill pen is still well ahead of the word processor.
Imagine all there is to read that has been written
here in Connecticut by Connecticut authors: the works of
Twain, Barbara Tuchman, Paul Horgan, John Hersey, William
Styron, the plays of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, the
poetry of Robert Penn Warren and Wallace Stevens, not to
say Mr. Webster's dictionaries. In times past, old Noah Webster's "blue-back
speller," as it was called, published first in 1783, found
its way everywhere in the new nation, from the eastern seaboard
to the frontier beyond the Mississippi. It ran to 404 editions
and except for the Bible may have been the most widely read
book in eighteenth and nineteenth century America.
By all means read Dickens. Read those books you
know you're supposed to have read and imagine as dreary.
A classic may be defined as a book that stays long in print
and a book stays long in print only because it is exceptional.
Why exclude the exceptional from your experience? Read the
Go back and read again the books written supposedly
for children - and especially if you think they are only
for children - my first choice would be The
Wind in the Willows. There's much, very much to learn
in the company of Toad, Rat, and Mole.
Do not, whatever you do, wait as I did until you're
past 50 to read Don
To carry a book with you wherever you go is old
advice and good advice. John Adams urged his son John Quincy
to carry a volume of poetry,"You'll never be alone," he said,"with
a poet in your pocket."
And when you read a book you love, a book you
feel has enlarged the experience of being alive, a book that "lights
the fire," spread the word. Spread the word.
Warmest congratulations to you all. You're on
your way and if I'm any judge, the future is full of more
promise than ever before. Times of great change can be times
of extreme stress, but they are also the times when we can
learn the most. We need as never before the capacity to think
- and to think with a heart as well as the mind. For all
our troubles and problems, the best is yet to come.