I know I’m not the only history teacher who’s been wrestling with profound doubts about what we’ve done or, perhaps, what we haven’t. Given the erosion of civility, even of rationality, and the increasing divisiveness that characterize our national discourse, we can’t avoid wondering if our work has been so poor that we’ve contributed to today’s civic chaos.
It’s certainly tempting to hold historians and history teachers at least partially responsible for our current dysfunction. After all, we supposedly educate people to be responsible citizens of a democracy. But that broad purpose has weakened of late. The majority of today’s college and university historians pursue ever-narrower topics, writing for a rapidly diminishing audience of fellow specialists. And it’s no accident that the most popular name for high school history teachers is “Coach.” Considering today’s polarization, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that we professionals may have failed the public in a big way.
On the other hand, it was ever thus.
As the long-time chair of a history department that educated both Presidents Bush, I grew accustomed to fielding complaints from irate citizens demanding to know what we had thought we were doing. I attempted to explain that, as H.G Wells once observed, teachers sow unseen harvests: never knowing how students will turn out. “Unseen harvests?” snorted one caller, “If only we could keep it that way!”
Now we’re again confronting what historian David Blight calls the central questions that reverberate throughout our history: What is an American?
And who gets to be one? What is – or should be - the role of government in American life? How much do citizens owe to the government and how much should they expect from it? Americans have always wrestled with these questions; and they’re never settled.
So the challenge for educators right now is to accept the fact that Americans aren’t doing well with this debate and re-commit to our task, without giving in to despair.
I’m encouraged by the memory of a moment when a young teacher presented a litany of complaints about his students’ shortcomings to a senior colleague and asked “What should I do?”
The response was simply, “Teach them. You must teach them.”
And so we must. Our harvests may be unseen, but they’re sown in hope