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TRAVELING IN STYLE : CLASS ACTION : A historian's counsel to graduating collegians: Travel. Look at people. Talk to people. Listen to what they have to say. Prize tolerance and horse sense. And some time, somewhere along the way, do something for your country

March 20, 1988|DAVID McCOLLOUGH

As graduates of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., seek their places in the world, historian/writer David McCullough suggests in a commencement address to the class that they might first wish to see the world.

I once knew an able and accomplished man who had been fired from his first job after college because his employer decided he was deficient in positive attitude. "You'll never go anywhere," he was told as he departed. Unable to find another job, he spent the next several months seeing the world and, remembering the old employer and those parting words, he took particular pleasure in sending him a postcard from each stop along the way, from one foreign capital after another, to let him know just how far he was going.

I want you all to go far.

I want you to see Italy--Florence, in particular--at least once in your lifetime. I hope you can spend an hour in front of the great, 500-year-old Botticelli at the Uffizi, "The Birth of Venus." Do it for the unparalleled pleasure of it, but also so you will have the experience to draw on whenever overtaken by the common hubris of our time, which is that our time outranks all others in all attainments.

I hope by the time you are my age you will have been to Edinburgh, little Edinburgh, and walked its stone streets and read its great thinkers and considered their impact on our own Founding Fathers.

Go to Palenque--Palenque, the stupendous Mayan ruin in the beautiful Mexican province of Chiapas. Climb the long stairway of the central pyramid-tomb to the very top and, with the main palace and other monuments spread before you, try to keep in mind that what you are seeing is only a fraction of what once was and that all of it was built under the rule of one man who lived more than 1,000 years ago, a king called Pacal, a name virtually unknown to North Americans, except for a handful of scholars, yet plainly one of the most remarkable leaders in the whole history of our hemisphere. He had to have been. You need only see Palenque to know that.

I hope you go to Italy and Scotland and to places like Palenque because I think you will afterward see and understand your own country more clearly. That is an old idea, I know--that the country you learn most about by traveling abroad is your own--but then some old ideas bear repeating.

You must also go, please, to Monticello. Walk through the vegetable garden that Jefferson carved out of the south side of his "little mountain." Tour his extraordinary house, see his trees, enjoy the view, so much of which still looks as he saw it. But pay particular attention to the vegetable garden and remember what it tells you about patriotism.

It is 80 feet wide and 1,000 feet in length. He grew no fewer than 450 varieties of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs. Four hundred and fifty varieties! The garden was begun in 1774, which makes it older than the United States. He was constantly experimenting, trying "new" vegetables like okra and egg plant and Arikara beans brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He grew 15 varieties of peas alone.

In his perfect hand in his garden diary he recorded all that he planted there--where, when, and when it came to his table. He considered agriculture a science to be taken very seriously. But his patriotism was also involved. "No greater service can be rendered any country," he once said, "than to introduce a new plant to its culture"--that from the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence!

Patriotism in a plant. How different from what the Hollywood impresarios have in mind for us.

Your travels should take you through the great heartland of Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. And you must get off the Interstates. You must ride the side roads where the small towns are, and the farmland, where main streets are boarded up, and you soon grow tired of counting the abandoned farms, because there are so many. What kind of people are we if we turn our backs on the land and the people who have worked it for so long in all seasons?

Go to eastern Kentucky. See with your own eyes what the strip-miners are doing, still, for all the ballyhoo about reclamation. I believe the reports we have read about reclamation are largely lies. Go see for yourself if the rape of the land continues every day, not in far-off, who-cares-a-damn-about-it, good-for-nothing, backwoods hillbilly Kentucky, but your Kentucky, your country.

Look at people when you travel. Talk to people and listen to what they have to say.

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