David McCullough presented an address at Boston College on May 19, 2008. The topic of his discourse was “The Love of Learning.” I was assigned last week to read and annotate his talk. This was my first time to read his remarks, and I was quite impressed by it. I want to share some of his ideas with you.
There is much information in our world today, but information is not learning. McCullough says, “Learning is not to be found on a printout. It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books. And from teachers, and the more learned and empathetic the better. And from work, concentrated work.”
McCullough obviously knows that nothing is gained without time and effort. One must work in order to learn, and it does not matter what the task is. We could ask any young child who is learning to read or write or do math. Learning is work, and work takes time! We can learn from good books, through great teachers, and by work.
The author quotes Abigail Adams as saying more than 200 years ago: “Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended with diligence.” Then he says, “Ardor, to my mind, is the key word.” Merriam-Webster defines ardor as “warmth of feeling, extreme vigor or energy.” Thus, McCullough titled his address “The Love of Learning.”
McCullough describes the writing of his biography of John Adams and how he wanted to read what John and Abigail Adams read. He did this because “We’re all what we read to a very considerable degree.” In his quest to read the books read by President and Mrs. Adams, he read many books, including Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote, a book that I have not yet read.
Did you know that many of our common sayings come from Cervantes? “Cervantes is part of us, whether we know it or not. Declare you’re in a pickle; talk of birds of a feather flocking together; vow to turn over a new leaf; give the devil his due, or insist that mum’s the word, and you’re quoting Cervantes every time.”
McCullough quotes Thomas Jefferson as writing, “I cannot live without books,” to John Adams. Jefferson and Adams were friends and shared a love for reading. John Adams once told his son John Quincy to “Always carry a book with you on our travels.”
Speaking to the graduates of Boston College, McCullough offers similar counsel: “Make the love of learning central to your life…. If what you have learned here makes you want to learn more, well that’s the point….Read. Read. Read. Read the classics…. Read our country’s history…. Read into the history of Greece and Rome. Read about the great turning points in the history of science and medicine and ideas.
“Read for pleasure…. But take seriously – read closely – books that have stood the test of time. Study a masterpiece, take it apart, study its architecture, its vocabulary, its intent. Underline, make notes in the margins, and after a few years, go back and read it again.
“Make use of the public libraries. Start your own personal library and see it grow. Talk about the books you’re reading. Ask others what they’re reading. You’ll learn a lot….”