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Author David McCullough: The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of greater knowledge

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OREM — Renowned author and scholar David McCullough said the genius passed down by the Founding Fathers should not be disregarded. But neither should the current government become frozen by the Constitution, the nation's measure of good governance.

"Washington called it a guide and we should remember that," McCullough said, speaking at Utah Valley University on Monday.

McCullough's comments were part of a Constitution Day program at the UCCO Center, which coincided with the ribbon-cutting of the university's new Center for Constitutional Studies. Thousands of students and community members attended the keynote address, in which McCullough said there was a need for improvement in the teaching of history, particularly in regard to the founding of the United States.

"History is human" he said, emphasizing that the Founding Fathers were not gods, as they are sometimes portrayed, but instead were human beings of flesh and blood.

"The fact that they did what they did, despite their own personal failures, despite adversity, despite little or no seeming chance of success is one of the greatest stories in all of history," he said, "and it is true."

McCullough the author of "1776" and "John Adams," and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, offered an indictment of the current state of student knowledge in history, even as he praised UVU's new center and the need for more at other institutions of higher learning.

He described the current generation of students as "historically illiterate," saying that overall, Americans possess a sketchy, thin level of understanding of the nation's founding and the constitutional framework of society.

"I think we're swindling students with the illusion that they're educated and they're not," he said. "I know students. I know what they know and I know what they don't know."

Later on, speaking before the audience in the UCCO Center, McCullough said that compared to our ancestors, who studied literature, law, politics, art and agriculture while living shorter lives without modern comfort, we are "softies."

"We have been coddled," he said. "We have been comforted and made to feel secure in ways they never knew."

McCullough also pointed out the responsibility and accountability the founders took upon themselves by signing the Declaration of Independence – an act of treason against the British crown. He said there is a similar need for accountability and engagement among society today for what goes on in government. He called the pursuit of happiness the pursuit of greater knowledge.

"We are accountable for what happens in the government and the direction of our country and we are accountable for the education of our children and grandchildren," he said. "They didn't mean vacations. They didn't mean more stuff. They meant the life of the mind, the love of learning."

While introducing McCullough, Rick Griffin, the founding director of the Center for Constitutional Studies, described him as a historical "tour guide." He said McCullough, through his writing, places a reader among Washington's army or in Independence Hall during the constitutional debates.

Near the end of his remarks, McCullough acknowledged the personal nature of his research and writing. He said parents should take their children to historical sites such as Independence Hall or the Capitol. He said teachers – who he said do the most important and influential work in the country – need to encourage the "adventure of learning" by having students write and read more than they are currently required to.

"I've had the great privilege of getting to know these people well," McCullough said of the Founding Fathers. "In many ways, I know them better than people in my own real life."

During the center's ribbon cutting, UVU President Matthew Holland emphasized that in addition to the honor of having McCullough participate in the university program, the true purpose of the event and the new center was an academic focus on the U.S. Constitution.

"It's what we will study," he said. "It's what we will reflect on. It's what we will try to defend."

In conjunction with his participation at the center's ribbon-cutting, McCullough was given the center's Inaugural Honorary Fellow Award.

The Center for Constitutional Studies is hosting a number of events in celebration of Constitution Day. On Thursday, George Washington University professor and writer Jon Turley will give a free address to the public at 11 a.m.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com