Monday, January 27, 2014

Checking Your Self

in which we see that the ties that bind are badges of honor

The Secret Life of Teaching #2 (first published at the History News Network)

By Horace Dewey

When I turn around from standing in front of my closet to check the time, I see it’s 6:43 a.m. I’ve been rooted here in my underwear for a solid six minutes—far too long. This was supposed to be easy. It’s Friday, which means I get to wear my favorite faded blue jeans and my solid navy blue cotton shirt. The question has been which tie should go with them. Even though it’s early in the semester, I’ve already gone through some of my favorites—the one with Beatles album covers, the one with the Gettysburg Address, the Van Gogh “Starry Night.” What’s left? There’s Shrek, but that goes better with my black or khaki jeans. Ditto for the Chinese food. I love that Paul Klee my wife bought for me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last summer, but that would be cheating, since I wore it the first week of school. There’s Superman, which gets lots positive comments, but I always feel a little immodest wearing it, as if I’m implying I’m Superman. I could go for a more low-key approach—red polka dots on a field of royal blue, or the metallic paisley of red, blue and silver. But today is a full day, and since I’m teaching most of my classes, I’d like to don something from my A list.
Ah ha—I remember I’m giving a unit test in my Humanities course today. I finger my way through one of the racks on the closet wall looking for tie I have with the pair of dice. I’ll imply taking a test is a game of chance. On my way there, though I encounter something even better: Edward Munch’s “The Scream.” Now that seems apropos for a test. Let’s see if anyone gets the joke.

* * *

Schools have varying rules about couture for faculty as well as students, but one way or another everybody wears a uniform. When left to their own devices, teachers usually opt for the informal, men (as usual) having more leeway, principally in the form of less censure for slovenliness. Sometimes, clothes make an ideological statement, most commonly when teachers express affirm their class politics by dressing down. Other times, fashion reflects complacency, if not sloth: my job is secure, and there’s no one I need to impress. Very often, it’s a matter of pragmatism; in a job where you spend a lot of time on your feet, sensible shoes (even athletic shoes) prevail. Of course, these and other motives mingle, as do manifold exceptions. But teachers rarely dress like doctors or lawyers, and while few are foolish enough to chase adolescent style, the choices of students do exert a gravitational pull, which is precisely why some schools to impose rules on both (and why both will try to stretch them).
I’m a fairly typical specimen in this regard. In the first years of my job as a high school teacher, I wore khakis, a dress shirt, a tie and work shoes. More recently, I’ve lapsed back toward jeans and cords, clinging to the shoes and (especially) the ties, which have become more colorful as my shirts have turned toward earth tones. The ties have become my signature—most of my large and growing collection are gifts, and I only half-jokingly call them anti-soporific devices. They’re like a shaft of personality I allow to escape my otherwise unprepossessing visage.
The act of getting dressed in the morning—in particular, the act of threading my belt and filling my pockets—is one of the most satisfying rituals of my day. There’s a fixed sequence: keys on the left, phone on the right, comb back left and wallet back right. Pillbox with the keys; mints in the change pocket. I glide a lacquered pen (another indulgence) into my shirt pocket. My watch clips onto a belt loop, a legacy of carpel tunnel syndrome. So does my photo ID, a requirement that followed in the wake of school shootings and a reminder of the price we pay in prioritizing the freedom of gun owners over that of children. But I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that my I regard that plastic card as a satisfying piece of girding for the day’s labor. Sometimes as I dress I imagine the lipstick rolling, the shirts buttoning, and the boots zipping as my fellow travelers converge on the building we share.
Among contemporary multicultural educators and consultants, there’s a discourse about the problem of students (and, in some cases, faculty) having to “check your identity at the door.” This discourse addresses the fact that there’s often a minority—racial, sexual, socioeconomic, religious, disabled—that feels obliged to conform to the dominant culture of a school, and to downplay, even deny, the realities of their own lives. This conflict continues when they return home, as they navigate the gap between their communities of origin and the ones they’re being socialized to join—“code-switching,” in the lingo of multiculturalists. In some schools, administrators and parents strive to close this gap through tools like quiet subsidies for field trips, creating student affinity groups, and the like.
At the risk of some presumption, I’ll say that I have at least some idea about what these people are trying to do, because as an undergraduate scholarship student with growing awareness that many of peers lived decidedly different lives than I did, I experienced such tensions first-hand. I don’t insist they be embraced or passively accepted by students or those trying to help them. That said, I believe there are times and ways when there is nothing more liberating than checking your self at the door. When I enter a building literally bearing my identity as a teacher, the school logo trumps the idiosyncrasies of my face and all the other particularities of my life, among them that tie, an affectation likely to be ignored by others and forgotten by myself. Once I’m at work, I have a set of privileges and responsibilities that offer the promise of relief from self-consciousness. That promise isn’t always realized, of course, as often because I sabotage it as because outside forces (like a phone call from home) disrupt it.  Still, the mere prospect is among the most precious assets of the gainfully employed.
Students also savor checking their identities at the door and becoming members of mass, whether it’s that of a school, a class, or a member of a team. (Is there any talisman of collective identity more savored than those of the team jersey or varsity jacket?) There’s a long and dishonorable history of students being denied this experience, one that should be remembered and actively resisted. But this is a problem of exclusion, not suppression.
One of the most valuable aspects of checking your identity at the door is the way your memory of having done so remains with you after you’ve checked out. In some respects this is humbling—the person in that bathrobe you see in the mirror is usually a good deal less impressive than the one you see after you get dressed. A similar laxity extends to behavior. More than once I’ve winced, after yelling at my kids or doing something else I regretted, when I imagined my students witnessing what I’ve just said or done. Ironically, playing a role can keep you honest.
It also has its guilty pleasures. When I was the father of young children and subject to the demands of that role, the promise of a working day at school felt like freedom. Days or weeks off—and the absence of daycare that usually accompanied them—loomed large. These days, I savor a holiday or three-day weekend as much as any of my colleagues, even if my pastimes are of the most quotidian kind. But pending burdens, like long-term illness or the aging parents, are always around to remind me that a job can feel like a vacation.
Each of us is a repertory company: we’re not really functional, much less happy, unless we’re playing a variety of parts. And changing costumes. Most of the time, we’re handed our scripts. The rest is a matter of interpretation—and impersonation.

* * *

“Ooooh, ‘The Scream’—I love it,” my colleague Denise Richardson, who teaches English, tells me while we wait on line for a cup of coffee before the first class of the day. “Feeling a little suicidal today, Horace?”
“Nope. Test this afternoon.”
“How lovely. I’m sure your students will appreciate your solicitude.”
But they don’t seem to notice. When I enter the room most of the girls seem freaked out, poring over study guides and querying each other on the main provisions of the Mayflower Compact. I’m asked a few stray questions, which I answer as I arrange desks into rows, something I suspect reassures some of the students even as it may frustrate others. The exam goes off without a hitch; I’m asked leading or inane questions by students seeking to wring a few points out of me (“What does ‘predestination’ mean?”; “When you say ‘the Virginia Company’ do you mean a business or just a group of people trying to make money?”), which I try to deflect the best I can.
The last person to finish is Kim Anders, who’s double- (or triple-, or quadruple-) checking her work even as students are gathering just beyond the closed door, peering in as a hint that it’s time for her to clear out so they can get in for the next class. 
“I saw that painting recently at the Museum of Modern Art,” she says, gesturing at my tie as she approaches me at the front of the room. “I went with my Dad. What’s his name—Edward Mensch?”
“‘The Scream,’ right?”
“Is that supposed to be joke?”
Kim nods, mirthlessly. Then she walks over to the door, puts her hands to her ears, and issues a brief, punctuated scream: “HAAAA!” The kids on the other side flinch. After the initial terror, a few laugh; others look at her angrily.
Kim she looks back at me as she opens the door to exit. “Thanks, Mr. Dewey.”
“For what? You like taking tests?”
Kim squints, considering the question. “Ummm, I dunno. The tie, I guess. I like it.”

“I should be thanking you,” I say with a smile. But Kim has already disappeared amid the incoming tide. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Series: The Secret Life of Teaching. #1: Identity politics

In which we finesse the occupational hazard of keeping student names straight

The Secret Life of Teaching, #1 (first published at the History News Network)

By Horace Dewey

 My name is Horace Dewey, and I am a high school history teacher at the East Hudson School in New York City. Actually, no—in fact my name is not Horace Dewey, though I really am a high school history teacher (East Hudson is fictive). As you will surely surmise, my pseudonym has symbolic significance. “Dewey” is an act of homage to John Dewey, the 20th century patron saint of progressive education. You might think that “Horace” is a nod toward Horace Mann, the 19th century architect of the modern public school system, an allusion I won’t disavow. But my first name is actually a tribute to education reformer Theodore Sizer (1932-2009) and author of renowned “Horace trilogy” (1984 -1996).

            Because I have the privacy of students to protect, names and situations have been changed. I have also resorted to outright invention in a few cases, though everything I describe is rooted in more than a quarter-century’s experience of classroom teaching. My credibility lies in the truth of my storytelling.


“Excellent, Kim. The family structure—or maybe I should say the lack of family structure—in Virginia is indeed one of the distinguishing features between New England and the South in the seventeenth century. What are some other differences?”
Two hands go up. One is Sam Stevens, but he’s already spoken too many times today. Uneasy about it, I gesture toward the other kid. “Go ahead—”
Shit! What’s his name?
“—Yes. You. Go right ahead.”
 This is embarrassing. He knows I don’t know. And so does everybody else. Keep going—you’ve fumbled, but we’re already on to the next play.
“ . . . and the Southern economy is about cotton,” mystery kid is saying.
Bluff. “Yes, good, except that at this point the Chesapeake is really about tobacco, not cotton. Cotton won’t come until much later. Yes, Cara? What do you think?”
Off she goes. Cara tends to unspool for a while before getting to the point. Normally, this is exasperating. But now it gives me a chance to regroup.
It’s week two of the new school year, and the ship whereby I can keep asking kids to identify themselves has already sailed. I’ve got most of them. But there are a couple (Adam Kirby? Who the hell is he? And who’s the other dirty-blonde kid in the corner?) who elude me. But I’ve got to get back in the saddle. Which is going to be hard, because I have no clue what Cara just said.
Phew. Wilhelmina’s raising her hand. Port in a storm.
“What do you think, Willie?”
“Well, I just want to add on to what Adam said—”
Adam! Yes! So the other one looking at the clock must be Chris.
Silence: Willie’s done. They’re waiting on me. “Good, Willie.”
I wasn’t paying attention to her. Is that a smirk on Jack Altieri’s face? He’s such a prick. So was his brother. Into Duke on his daddy’s checkbook.  “So let me ask you this, gang. If you were a nineteen year-old boy in 1625, where do you think you would rather go—“colonial Williamsburg or colonial Plymouth?”
            Sam’s hand goes up again. I nod at him. Finally. On track. 
The only question now is whether I’ll be able to keep Adam and Chris straight this time tomorrow morning. The odds, I think grimly, are 50-50. But on his way out the door, I make a point of saying, “take care, Adam.” Maybe that will buy me a little good will? “OK,” he says. “Schmuck,” he thinks.

* * *

There are many complex relationships in public life that blend the personal and professional in ways that defy easy description. But there’s nothing quite like the dance of intimacy and formality between student and teacher. No teacher who connects emotionally with students will ever be considered a failure by them: something will be learned, and long remembered, whatever the teacher’s competence in a given subject. But no teacher can be an effective educator without sustaining a discrete distance from students, emotional and otherwise. Finding the balance between the two is an unending life’s work.
Students always learn in multiple ways. But it remains a truism that students learn best when they work with a teacher that knows them (their first teachers, of course, are their parents).  This of course begs the question of what it means to “know” a student. The most superficial answer is being able to match a name and a face—which is not superficial at all as far as many students are concerned: if you can’t remember my name, why should I remember anything you tell me? It may be a misguided question, but it’s there all the same, and no teacher who hopes to be effective can long ignore it. 
A second level of knowing is similarly superficial, and at the same time even more important: the impression you have of the student as a student. This is often a perception that takes shape even before you know their names: sharp or dull; active or passive; charming or abrasive. (I don’t mean to link these adjectives; sometimes the ones you suspect are smartest hang back, for example.) Oftentimes you pick such impressions up unconsciously, taking your cue from body language, diction, the glaze of an eye. These sensory perceptions can prove quite accurate once you begin to see their work or talk with your colleagues about them. Then again, they may not.
Right or wrong, your initial perceptions often prove significant—and not always in a good way. Once I get a sense of a kid as a B student, for example, it becomes harder—not impossible, but harder—for that kid to get an A, in part because I try to ration the As and am often looking for reasons to deny them in an effort to maintain a sense of standards: I want those As to actually mean something, if for no other reason than a kid who gets one will feel she has earned something. I’m not usually conscious of being easier or tougher on kids I don’t perceive as especially bright—or more lenient on kids I like for one reason or another—but on some level I know this must be true. At the same time, my self-image also requires me to show myself that I’m capable of revising my perceptions of a kid. So it is that we see through a glass darkly.
Knowledge of a student is also socially constructed, which is to say the product of perceptions of others you have no way of verifying, but which you nevertheless absorb directly or indirectly. Some reputations reside in the student body: he’s a jock; she’s a slut; they’re geeks. Constructing and maintaining a persona is one of the most important tasks of childhood and (especially) adolescence, and one valuable indicator of intelligence is how effective a student is in modulating social equilibrium with peers and adults, and toggling between them.
One’s colleagues are also an important source of data about students. Some of this is in the official realm of report cards and other feedback that are part of a student’s scholastic record. More often, information is anecdotal, varying greatly in its degree of legitimacy, even propriety. There are times when gossip is genuinely helpful; it may lead one to see a student’s behavior in a larger pattern or context, and in some cases lead you to make allowances you might not otherwise make (his parents are going through a divorce) or take more forceful action (you mean he’s done that to you, too?).
But amid all this contextual knowledge of students, there are also avenues of that can be startlingly direct, even personal. The most obvious form is student writing. For the most part, grading student essays is an unpleasant task, in large part because students say predictable things badly. But every once in a while I’ll be surprised by a revelation of how a student actually thinks that’s arresting for its candor, insight, or both. Even bad writers can convey a disposition or an ideology, whether they intend to reveal it or not. So it is that I occasionally learn just how narcissistic, narrow-minded, empathic or insightful a kid can be. Sometimes I finish reading an essay just liking a student so much, marveling at an inexplicably attained preternatural wisdom and thinking how marvelous it would be to be that person’s friend. I’m reminded of that line from that adolescent perennial, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
            But of course I can’t be such a student’s friend—not in that way, at least. I will on occasion seek strike up a conversation with a kid about weekend plans, the meaning of a slogan on a T-shirt, hoping something interesting will shake out in the conversation that follows. Under certain circumstances, like walking together on a field trip, I might go further and ask the kid about what the parents do for a living, what schools the kid attended previously, and other biographical details. Occasionally, a student will turn the tables and ask me such questions, which I’ll reluctantly answer, even as my esteem for the kid goes up a notch.
            Every once in a while I’ll find myself in among a klatch of students and manage to fade into the woodwork as they talk among themselves. It’s in moments like these that I get a better sense of their standing among each other. There may come a moment when I’m drawn into the conversation—I’ll agree that this musician really is awful or that movie was quite good—and for the briefest moment our respective different social positions will vanish. For me these moments are tenuous and brief—they tended to be tenuous and brief when I was an adolescent, too—but I’ve never tried very hard to do much better in this regard. The truth is that I don’t really want to be all that close to these kids. Most of the time I can’t really listen to them for more than fifteen minutes or so without getting restless. Part of this is envy—I don’t want to press my nose against the glass—and part of is the knowledge that I have happily left some of the work they’re doing happily behind.
            Some of my colleagues finesse these interactions with more effortlessly than I do. They seem to be able to tease, scold, cajole, even touch students and have it seem natural, and they can self-disclose with unselfconscious ease. And they do all this without compromising their integrity or authority. Such people, who are almost always a minority in a school, are indispensable. They’re not necessarily good teachers in the conventional sense of the term. But they’re excellent educators, and can make a deeper, more lasting impression than the most dedicated or brilliant instructor.
            The final, essential point to be made here that the information between student and teacher flows in two directions. All the ways I’ve been describing in which a teacher comes to know a student—facial recognition, initial impressions, community reputation, written communication, observed and direct conversation—also apply to the way a student comes to know a teacher. Indeed, many teachers are “known” to a student long a teacher has any idea who a student is. Individual student opinions can be idiosyncratic, conflicting, and poorly articulated. But the composite picture is usually reasonably accurate—or, at any rate, often no less so than the reputation a teacher has among peers.
            Sometimes, a student will teach you things about yourself. This might happen when you jump to a conclusion with a kid who calls you on it, when you get a back-handed compliment that pains you in ways that weren’t intended, or when you realize that your issues with a particular kid have uncomfortable affinities with other kids in a specific demographic. Addressing such problems is not always easy, and actually correcting them may be impossible. But such feedback can be helpful in checking your impulses and sidestepping at least some mistakes.
            Every once in a while you get a gift. Some years back I barked at a student who I felt was dragging her heels on doing her homework. This student didn’t seem particularly engaged by my class, though I recognized an underlying intelligence—she had a real sense of style that modulated an understated beauty—and I knew that she was highly regarded by faculty and students as a singer and visual artist. But at that moment I was just annoyed. Later, I learned that my immediate reason for my ire rested on a misunderstanding. But even before that, I knew I’d been unfair—I’d just been diagnosed as diabetic, and I’d taken my distraction and irritability out on her. So I sent her an email to apologize and explain my outburst. “I knew something was wrong,” she told me the next day when I ran into her in an empty hallway. “That just wasn’t like you.” I found her compassion unexpected and moving, and it led me to disclose that my fear of aging had gotten the best of me. When I paid a visit to the college she went on to attend, I made a point of contacting her and we had a lovely brief chat. I’m not sure I’ll ever see her again (except on facebook—I do a mass friending of graduating seniors each June—and she surfaces from time to time). But I’ll always feel a tie to her.
            Indeed, a great dividend of teaching is your former students. Sometimes—especially in the short term—relations with them can be awkward, because they come back from college all breathless and eager to speak with you, and you’re still deeply immersed in a world they’ve left behind (a reality I imagine is likely to inspire alternating relief and melancholy). But as they ripen into adults you can lower your guard a little and converse with them in a manner that approaches that of peers. Sometimes, their affection for you is unstinting even as they surely see, perhaps with newfound clarity, the contours of your limits. They understand amid their own creeping mortality that it’s important to honor vitality, however partial, wherever they find it (even if only in memory).
            In the end, the most important curriculum a teacher will ever study is the student body. In time, the appeal of any given formal curriculum will fade. But as long as you find the students interesting—as long as they entertain, bemuse, provoke or enlighten—you’ll have something worthwhile to do.

* * *

            “Mr. Dewey!”
            “Ella!” We embrace at the top of the stairs near my office. “How are you? How is Wesleyan?”
            “Great! You look great!”
            “So do you.” She’s lying; I’m not. A woman, not a girl. Short hair is better. The winter coat she’s got on is smashing. The scarf adds a splash of red.
            “What are you now, a junior?”
            “A senior. Can you believe it?”
            “No, but that’s how these things go, Ella. By the way, call me Horace.”
A pained look crosses her face. “How is your sister?” I ask. “And Eddie?”
She brightens again. “Great! Catherine graduated from Amherst two years ago and is applying to law school for next fall. Eddie is working for Goldman Sachs.”
“And you turned out to be a History major—I remember from your last visit.”
“And I turned out to be a History major,” she repeats wistfully. “I’m thinking about graduate school.”
“In History? God forbid, kiddo. You’ve got better things to do.”
“Do I?” A retort laced with self-doubt. “I had a second major in East Asian Studies. I went to China last year. I’m looking into doctoral programs.”
Yikes. Time to backtrack. “Well if anybody could get a professorship in this market, it would be you.” I mean it. She was a wonderful student.
“I’m also thinking public history or material culture. I’ve got something lined up for this summer at the Met.”
“Good for you.”
“It’s your fault, you know,” she says, breaking into a smile and shaking a finger a gloved finger at me. “Tenth grade. You got me hooked. And it was that paper on the Boxer Rebellion that got me interested in Chinese history.”
“You did a nice job with that.”
“And how about you?” she asks after a pause. “How are things going here?”
“Oh, you know. Same old stuff.”
We’re running out of steam. “Anyway,” she says, gliding her coat sleeve back with one hand so she can see check her watch on the other. “I’ve got to run. But I just wanted to come by and say hello.”
“I’m glad you did. Say hi to your family.”
“I will,” she says, as we hug again. “Great to see you, Mr. Dewey—I mean Horace.”
“Likewise, Ella. Take care.”
Only after I cease to hear the click of her boots do I remember that her name isn’t Ella.

Friday, January 17, 2014

In Rome: An Empire's Story, Greg Woolf manages to compress 15 centuries into an elegant span of 300 pages

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.

It seems fitting that a short book about the rise and fall of the Roman empire is a triumph of engineering. Greg Woolf distills 1500 years of history, bisected by the birth of Jesus Christ, into exactly 300 pages of main text, cased with a robust editorial apparatus. He accomplishes this with eighteen chapters that alternate between narrative history and a thematic overviews that include the ecology of the Mediterranean basin, the role of slavery, Roman religion, and other topics. (Oddly, one omission is a chapter on Roman engineering, a surprising oversight given the magnitude and durability of its accomplishments.) The effect of this book is a squared circle: Woolf surveys a history that is very difficult to grasp as a whole, and yet also manages to suggest a sense of texture and continuity in the values, institutions, and practices that stitched together a world for a remarkably long time.

With a similar sense of economy and leverage, Woolf endows his narrative with an interpretive dimension that rests on the indefinite article of its subtitle: an Empire's story. When it comes to the Romans, Woolf is not an exceptionalist. He is able to repeatedly and convincingly juxtapose any number of practices -- tax policy, war-making, identity formation -- with reference to earlier and later empires around the globe, both contemporary to Rome and those temporally on either side of it. He sees the key of Rome's success is the way in which the ad-hoc conquests of the late Republic, culminating in the career of Julius Caesar, gave way to the tributary empire of Augustus, in which an army loyal to the emperor maintained civil as well as military stability. This stability was severely tested in the third century CE, but successfully reorganized before a series of waves eroded and finally broke it down, a gradual process culminating with the the rise of Islam in the seventh century. This is not an original argument, of course, as Woolf, a professor of Ancient History at St. Andrews and the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World, readily makes clear. Indeed, his masterful sense of historiography suggests a lifetime of learning worn lightly. But his assertion that it's Rome survival, not its fall, that's hardest to explain is a point worth remembering.

Rome: An Empire's Story was first published in 2012 and has just been reissued in a paperback edition. It was clearly conceived as a textbook adoption, as suggested by chapters that end with sections for further reading. But it has the ease and scope of a trade book, as admiring reviews from the likes of the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley suggests. It's hard to imagine a better introduction to the subject.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Interesting Times (Part IV)

The following is the last segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered this month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Previous segments are below.

In affirming the power of history, I want to spell out two things I’m not talking about. The first, a common misconception among non-historians, is that history is about facts. In some sense, of course, facts matter: they’re the very tissue of history, the stuff of which it is made. But facts alone are never sufficient, which is to say that facts almost never tell you the truth. For one thing, facts are always finite: you never quite have enough of them when it comes down to things you really want to know. Simultaneously, facts are so plentiful that there’s always the question of which facts are being used, and how. Sometimes, when I talk with my students about an essay assignment, they will tell me what they want to “prove” in their papers, at which point I correct them: in history we prove nothing. All we can really do is try to persuade each other about the way the world really works.
So don’t put your faith in facts. Which brings me to the other kind of historical knowledge I’m not particularly interested in pressing here, one that modern historians really do see as central to their craft: making arguments. For the last 125 years or so, actually, success in my profession has been about constructing an interpretive version of American history, an analytic model, for which to understand a particular person, place – or, especially in recent decades, process. That version or model, constructed with conscious awareness of other, competing ones, is meant to be understood as resonant: the case study standing in for a larger whole. It is understood that the successful, which is to say persuasive, historian makes such arguments using the language and methods of reason, logic, evidence, and other precepts of the sciences from which modern historical writing has borrowed so much of its prestige. Do that and you will be described with highest term of term of esteem in the profession: influential.
Of course, I, too, am engaged in an act of persuasion, and I too hope you’ll see a logic in what I say here that you can apply to many more things than I happen to talk about today. But I understand my role here a little differently than those in the academic history business. It’s taken me a while to figure this out, but I think I’ve arrived at a place where I see my job as something closer to a village elder relating pieces of family lore. The stories I tell – and, yes, I do think that stories are, as they’ve always been, the very core of history – are not be original, complete, or objective. I acknowledge that you have other members of the village (other teachers, parents, friends) who see the matter differently, and I encourage you to seek them out as well. But if I do my job right, you’ll want to hear my version of the story, because it will help you make sense of your experience in the broadest sense: who you are, where you’ve come from, and what parts of your heritage can inform what you do or don’t do next with your life.
Your job in all of this is to learn how to listen. That may sound like I’m telling you to be obedient children. I’m not. And I understand that there are few things more difficult to actually sit still and remain attentive while some old white guy drones on for a half-hour when there are so many other things you would rather be doing. Honestly, you have my sympathy. And I know I lost some of you in this lecture a long time ago, and I don’t blame you. But if you’re still with me, and if there’s anything you’re still willing to hear from me, it would be this: Listen actively. Give people – teachers, little sisters, big brothers, supermarket checkout clerks, whoever – a chance to have their say. More than that, ask them questions based on what they say. And ask yourself in a non-snide way: What does any of this have to do with me? Are their dreams much different than mine? Are their circumstances much different than mine? If you’re really paying attention, the answer is not likely to be obvious. And the payoff will be this: in ways that are impossible to foresee, there will be, now or later, some shard, some story or premise or memory that will buck you up, inspire you, give you hope. Your challenges will always be unique, and yet at the same time never quite unprecedented. They may also prompt you to ask some potentially useful questions, like: what are the things I like and care about the most? What am I good at? What do I really need? Given when and where I am, and given the resources at hand, how am I most likely to get what I want?
To at least some extent, these are questions you’re already asking yourself, even if they’re not exactly informed questions. Though we Americans have always liked to think of ourselves as free agents with the power to choose our destinies (a phrase I’ve always found rather odd), we of course are all products of people and forces not of our own choosing. We have mothers and fathers; we hail from particular places; we have inherited racial and religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. Part of what it means to grow up is to self-consciously sort out these inherited dimensions of our identities, accepting, rejecting, or adapting them by our lights. This is one of the first things we do when we bond to our mates: we relate our histories in terms of our choosing. This of course is an ongoing process: to live is to revise, and we live after our deaths to the extent that our survivors continue to revise us on their terms. But – and this is crucial – implied in the word “revision” is an understanding that there remains some essence that makes our memories something other than entirely new.
We need that. We need to believe in the reality of past experience as something that is not entirely a product of our imaginations. Without it we feel rootless. Even when, as is sometimes the case, we experience our history as oppressive, as a trap, we may still find value in having something to fight against, a storyline to reject. Insofar as we ever break free from a history that haunts us, our liberation takes the form of finding a different history, an alternative precedent, which we can adopt as our own. This is why the recovery of lost characters, the recognition of people who heretofore have not been considered part of the story, can be such an important dimension of history: it gives the past a sense of relevance, the present a sense of tradition, and the future a sense of possibility.
This is a sunny, pragmatic way of putting it. But then a sense of optimism about history is something of an American family trait. In our seemingly bottomless confidence in our own malleability, we like to believe that the past, too, is subject to change. We may be a little foolish in this regard; we may even be wrong. But if, as the great American philosopher William James once said, truth is what happens to an idea, perhaps we can go on believing it for at least a little while longer. No one has proven we can’t.
But it’s hard to use a past you don’t know you’ve got. That’s what history courses are for: not to teach you things you’re likely to forget, but to remind you that you do have a history, that you’re part of something larger than yourself. Some parts of the stories you’re told will speak to you more directly than others; some you may find boring or repellent. Not everything I say is interesting, because it reflects my own configuration of memory, forgetting and ignorance. But part of knowing who you are is knowing who you’re not, and that can’t really happen unless you listen to what someone else is saying. That’s what schooling is: a process of paying attention.
Which is why it can seem so taxing. What it really should be is an investment. One you believe is worthwhile. Cash in the bank, fluency in a foreign language, the ability to operate a weapon: these may be the things that allow you to survive. But a sense of history: that will allow you to live.
Okay, so that’s the end here.  I don’t know if you will live in interesting times, Miltonites. But, whether or not you do, may you, in the words of the immortal Taylor Swift, dream instead of sleeping.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Interesting Times (Part III)

The following is the third segment of my 2013 Heyburn Lecture, delivered last month at Milton Academy in Milton, Massachusetts. Previous segment below (after the Christmas post); a final post will follow.

Here in the twenty-first century, it’s more apparent than ever before that the frontiers secured by the Second World War are under pressure. In some places – places that are not obvious from the vantage point of this beautiful campus, they’re actually collapsing. If you read political journalism, this is something you’re told all the time. There’s talk of debt, decaying roads and bridges, and foreign competition, whether commercial or military. Closer to home, it’s something you hear in terms of how challenging it is to get into a good college, how hard it is to afford any college, and how difficult getting a job with health insurance is (government-provided health care was a possible fork in the road the nation did not take after the Second World War). Your country used to be the world’s leader with technology; now it seems that that the airports or web connections are better abroad. You still think of your popular culture as a global trendsetter, and yet there are movies and shows with huge global audiences of which you know nothing.
One of the most obvious signs of this fraying – a sign that often becomes apparent overstretched empires begin to contract – is inequality. As those with privilege and power lose faith in their governing institutions (or, alternately, manage to wriggle free of its reach and create exceptions for themselves, which is another side of the same coin), the gap between haves and have-nots grows wider. Taxes are for suckers; it becomes more realistic to fend for yourself, which may mean buying your security privately rather than relying on communal resources. Governance becomes more difficult, and the appeal of leaders promising to slice through the ambiguities becomes ever more seductive. The seeds of dictatorship are sown in the soil of gridlock.
All this has been happening for a long time: people were saying such things back when your parents were children. Economists have been telling tell us for decades that the value of paychecks have been retreating and the price of things like fuel – and the cost of its consumption on our environment – have been rising. And yet in many respects, concerns about decline were premature then, and, at least for the moment, they seem premature now, because whatever the tremors you may be feeling or seeing, there doesn’t seem to be any large-scale changes you can easily see. And for the moment, at least, you’ve got a college degree in front of you. Your immediate horizon is what will happen in the next four or five years. And since there’s no obvious sign the world will implode before then, the smartest thing is to do is act as if things will pretty much go on as they have before.
Of course you know nothing lasts forever. But in your heart you can’t quite believe that things will be fundamentally different in the foreseeable future. The rhythms of everyday life – of work and school, of getting and spending, of trying to figure out what you want so you can go chase after it, because as an American the legitimacy of chasing after dreams is your birthright, even if you happen to have been born someplace else – have not changed fundamentally in generations. Yes, of course, there are collective setbacks: bad economic times, natural disasters, moments of political uncertainty like a government shutdown or a looming debt ceiling. But the expectation, and, to a great extent, the reality, is that things return to normal, however boring, unfair or reassuring normal may be.
But, in the hope it may be of some value to you, I’m going to make the educated guess that times will be getting more interesting. Not immediately, and not in ways I or anyone else can easily foresee. But it defies every notion of history that its elusive but nevertheless real rhythms can be entirely defied. Nothing is permanent, least of all stability.
This is not meant to be a prescription for doom. For all you or I know, you will be in a position to prosper from instability (or, to use a word much-beloved by some businesspeople, “disruption”). You’ll have a skill – a language, a trade, a personal trait – you can exploit to good effect. Or you’ll find a literal or figurative haven in which to ride out any storm. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy the excitement; there are always people (typically young men) who do. In any case, storms don’t arrive or move with uniformity. They’re hard to predict, and historians have never been noted for their power to forecast the future.
Given all this, you may well wonder just how it is I can be of any use to you. I make some maddeningly vague assertion that times will change, and an equally vague assertion that you may or may not prosper amid that change. What makes my suggestion all the more implausible is that I’m telling you that history – of all things! – will be useful to you. Not some technical skill. Or some techniques for dealing with people more effectively. But knowledge about things that have already happened: that will be valuable.
Next: What history can do