The long-term failure to support K-12 public education in this country was my first thought when I read Timothy Egan’s piece, The Dumb Down Democracy. The need to revitalize the study of history was my second. Admittedly, as a historian, I am biased. Not only was history forever my favorite subject, but it was the one that I was naturally good at. Beginning with the Miss Bailey’s afternoon kindergarten at St. Augustine’s to the final I took at Cornell Law School in Civil Rights, I have never been the smartest student in any class. It didn’t really matter to me. Somewhere along the line – my first year of graduate school -- I found my passion: teaching, into which I could bring history, and I was good enough to make a go of it.
Why, then, did I leave the profession? First, because I never planned to stay in it. My goal was to work in academic administration. Having already shared how law figured into path, I won’t reiterate. As much as I continued to love the study of history, I began applying to law schools once I finished my graduate course work, even though it would be another seven years beyond that before I finally crossed the threshold to my first law school class. Second, even as a young assistant professor, disciplinary politics exhausted me. I knew from the best of both worlds – pure academics and tarnished politics – because I studied with the legendary Genovese’s, Eugene and Elizabeth Fox. They taught where I was an undergraduate and at first I was thrilled to be let in on the internecine issues. It was not long, however, before privilege bled into a burden. I hadn’t yet stepped foot on the Binghamton before I was already steeped in department and disciplinary politics. Many years and countless hours of psychotherapy later, I shook the sand off of those sandals, but believe you me, it took a lot of effort.
The third reason is the most important. History is spiritual for me. I feel its ebb and flow. Being in Rome, Italy, for example, transports me to the past. Committing a professional sin, I also love to prognosticate. The monograph, the footnotes, the academic schools and disciplinary debates deaden that experience for me. No longer required to perform to those standards, I am free to fly around epochs as I like. It does not matter to me whether anyone believes in my now thirty-year old theory that Church of Latter Day Saints will be to America what the Christians were to Rome or whether, ultimately, I would rather sleep with or be Marc Anthony. It’s fun to think about these ideas. Even better than binging on The Good Wife.
I am also at liberty to integrate my best sense of history into other work. Here is where the letters Ph.D. make a living difference. Ask any of my students: I can’t teach law, technology – anything – without talking about history. It is the lens through which I think. It is how I envision, for example, the Internet … as a world-historical phenomenon of shaping and shaped by ideology, politics, culture and economics. In a wizened guide kind of way, I take delight in watching the look on my students’ faces the first few classes of the course as they try to make out not just what I am trying to convey about the subject matter but from where I am coming from intellectually. It does not work for every student, but more of often than not, by the end of the class, they get it. Most rewarding for me is when they begin an evaluation with something akin to “I never used to like history …”
But that statement is also very telling. Why should history be so forbidding? How have they made their way without recourse that resource? What I impart about history is not all that unusual or smart. In many cases it is simply the facts. The U.S. Constitution solidified the American Revolution. Copyright starts in U.S. law in Article I, section 8. There is a connection between a free speech and free market. An incentivized market valued innovation which primes the economic pump. Now take that idea forward to 21st century global information economy and most students have a meaningful insight. Coming often from cant – “information is free!” – students now have a taste of the complexity of intellectual property policy in contemporary politics.
The love of history is not for everyone. Just ask a chemist or poet what moves them. It is a classic case of “to each their own.” In sharing mine what I hope to impart is how much history matters. The paucity of it in our national education feeds regrets about our collective intelligence on any number of other topics such as how government operates or the meaning of governance in a democratic republic; cultural (in)tolerance; immigration and immigrants; foreign policy debates; sustainability, technology and science. I am too old and jaded to end this post on an unabashed cheerleading note such as “Unleash history from its culture war restraints and we shall revive the body politic!” But not so much that there isn’t a part of me that doesn’t actually believe a kernel of truth lies somewhere in that statement.
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