Teaching history

I miss being in the classroom. The COVID crisis helped the school for which I taught hasten its transfer from classroom teaching to online teaching. They had already been pushing that direction for some time. I took the training sessions but did not offer to teach online. The students who enrolled in my classes preferred to learn in the classroom. But when the campus was closed, the conversion to online teaching forced me to take a break in my college career. Now, I suspect, the break has become a permanent retirement.

My classroom was on a military base, although the school responsible for the classes is a state institution. Many of my students were active military personnel; others were family of active personnel, retired military personnel, and people from the community who enrolled through the state school. I had a few students older than me, while I also had students still in high school earning their first college credits.

I taught history. Occasionally I taught a class in world religions or in introduction to philosophy, but mostly I taught the survey history classes: World History to 1650 and World History since 1650. The year 1650 was arbitrarily chosen; it was the middle of the textbook. Even when the school faculty changed textbooks and the new textbook split around 1500, they didn’t bother to change the name of the classes. Sometimes I would challenge students to guess why the class either began or ended with 1650. I heard some good suggestions about the Industrial Revolution, the Age of European Exploration and Colonization, and other landmarks that might have happened around 1650; students groaned when I told them that the only reason the year was chosen was that it was the middle of the book. But I then made the point that we have as much information to study and learn about the past 370 years as we have for the thousands of years that preceded 1650.

Some of my student signed up for the class because they love history. Others took it only because they were required to have one class in history. I managed to benefit the entire range of students. People who think they hate history, more often than not, had history ruined for them by a bad teacher, one who forced them to memorize names and places and dates, to focus on trivia that is easily found online. I focused on teaching the bigger themes of history, giving students a reason to seek the details online. A survey class cannot spend time on details. Taking a survey class in history is like running through a buffet restaurant—one sees and smells some of the food available, and one can return later to sample the dishes that seemed most appealing. I had the students write some “compare and contrast” essays to force them into a bit of focused research: What similarities and differences can one find studying Napoleon and Hitler? What similarities and differences can one find studying Socrates and Confucius? I gave them choices so they could focus on topics most interesting to them (and so I wouldn’t have to read a dozen versions of the same essay). But mostly I invited them to see the vast themes of human history on this planet. We discussed migrations, wars, economic trade, and the spread of ideas. We talked about significant developments in technology, artistic expression, and philosophy. We analyzed the significance of geographic features, climate change at various times in history, foods, and diseases. At times we debated similarities and connections between past happenings and current events.

The first night we met was always exciting, and also a bit stressful, even anxiety-inducing. They would find out what kind of instructor I aimed to be and how their work as students would be evaluated; I measured how willing they would be to discuss ideas in the classroom and to share experiences that related to our lessons. For example, when we talked about the beliefs and practices of Muslims, some of my students were able to describe things they had seen in Muslim countries. One of the joys of teaching college is the presence of students who have learned things I haven’t learned or who have had experiences I haven’t had. I always invited them to share what they knew with the rest of us.

I also invited them to challenge interpretations of history, even those that were presented on the quizzes. I wanted them to see that history is more that memorizing a list of data; history is sorting the data, connecting the data, and interpreting the data. Historians sort through information, seeking understandings of what happened, why it happened, and what it caused to happen. Historians are allowed to disagree with one another. Sometimes I disagreed with the textbook. Students were allowed and invited to disagree with me—not to earn an extra point on a quiz, but to help all of us learn more about history. If they stated their case well, using valid information from the textbook or other sources, I gave them the point. If they were merely quibbling, I held to the point, defending it and showing how historians work to gather and share their understanding of history.

Near the end of the first night’s discussion, I told the class about President Nixon. In August 1974, Nixon resigned from the office of President—he is the only U.S. President to resign. The Watergate scandal that produced that resignation is complicated, and I did not describe it that first night. But I explained how distraught, discouraged, and depressed he was having to leave that important job that he had fought so much to gain and to hold. I then told the students how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had tried to comfort the President by saying that history would remember him more kindly than his contemporaries. I also quoted Nixon’s response to those words, as he said, “That depends upon who writes the histories.”

I pointed out to the students that, by enrolling in that class, they had become historians. They were taking on responsibility—they would help to write the histories. They owed it to their subjects, and to those who would read their work, to be accurate and fair. They would need to do thorough research, to think clearly and deeply about the information they had studied, and to communicate their conclusions effectively, convincingly, and honestly.

I would like to believe that, over the years, I have helped to shape a few good historians. I miss being in the classroom. J.

Singin’ them Olympic blues

My family celebrates the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics every time they happen. Not only do we have the television broadcasts playing whenever we are home and they are on; we have other ways of marking the occasion as well. I have a large paper Olympic torch that I hang on the wall of the living room from the time the Olympic torch is lit during the opening ceremonies until it is extinguished during the closing ceremonies. The Olympic rings are my wallpaper on my home computer and on my work computer. Sometimes, during the Olympics, I set my alarm to wake me with the Olympic theme.

For some reason, this year I have not been watching many Olympic competitions. The television is on and most of the family is watching, but I find that I prefer to be at the other end of the house curled up with a book. The fact that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are more interesting to me than gymnastics and races and volleyball surprises many people, including me.

I have noticed how odd the Olympic broadcasts sound from across the house. Hearing the voices of the announcers without being able to distinguish their words is peculiar—it’s nothing like hearing a movie or music or video game at the same distance.

I have tried not to analyze why I take no interest in this summer’s Olympics… but I’m not very successful at avoiding analysis of myself. I have found several possible explanations for this noninvolvement on my part.

  • I’ve seen the Olympics many times in my lifetime, and they don’t change much from one time to the next. My Olympic memories satisfy me; I don’t have to add new experiences to appreciate the Olympics.
  • It’s been a busy and stressful summer, and I have a lot on my mind. Already this month I have taken a test to become certified in my current occupation, and I am awaiting the results around the end of the month. At the same time, I’ve updated paperwork which could lead to changing careers, returning to full-time church work. There’s no telling when (or if) I might receive a response to that.
  • Every Olympiad, I find the broadcasters increasingly annoying. This reminds me of the fact that I used to love watching the parades on television Thanksgiving morning and New Year’s Day morning. The way the networks interrupt the parade broadcasts with inanity and commercialism ended my parade-viewing inclination. I think the NBC commentators may be doing the same thing to my Olympic-viewing inclination.
  • It’s rare that the Chicago Cubs are doing well this late into the summer. The last time they were playing meaningful games during the Summer Olympics was in 1984, so my sports loyalties are divided.
  • As a parent, I am increasingly sensitive about the time and energy young athletes must invest in their chosen competitions. It seems as if, in many cases, these athletes have lost their childhood to training and preparing for these performances. In many cases, they are also unprepared for a normal life after their days of competing have ended. I don’t sit and think about that topic all the time while the Olympics are happening, but I do feel sorry for these performers who have sacrificed much of their lives for our brief entertainment.
  • Other years I have become emotionally involved while watching these competitions. The last thing I need right now is for some Kassidy Cook to be added to my list of Olympic sweethearts, even if a short story or two could come out of the emotional investment.

Perhaps later this year I will regret not taking the time to watch the Olympics while they were happening. I doubt it. I’ve been through the room enough times, and have even sat down to watch an event or two, so it’s not as if I have been boycotting the Olympics from start to finish. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are keeping my interest. J.

Demagoguery, political polarization, and violence

I was doing some reading for leisure last night, and I read the following paragraph:

“Even now, the domestic political implications are still working themselves out. The political dilemma of democracy is that the time span needed for solutions to contemporary economic problems is far longer than the electoral cycle by which leaders’ performance is judged at the polls. How many politicians dare to risk their offices in proclaiming that the good times are over? Who is willing to tell his constituents that a wise policy will bring with it a decline in the standard of living, at least for a while? And what happens in the inevitable period of disillusionment when young men and women leave school and college to find their skills rejected and join the millions thrown out of work since the oil crisis? The way is open for demagoguery, political polarization, and violence.” Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval, 1982, page 886.

Kissinger was writing about the energy crisis of the 1970s. The decade began with bountiful and inexpensive energy—industry had been booming since the recovery after World War II. When the oil-producing nations began making demands of the oil companies early in the 1970s, the American government chose to remain uninvolved, to let the market correct itself. The problem exploded with the war of October 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, and Israel prevailed—in part because of an airlift of military supplies by the United States. From Libya to Iran, Muslim governments boycotted oil sales to the United States and raised the price of oil precipitously. This unexpected increase in the cost of energy led to a recession with inflation of prices, a combination rare enough that economists were not sure how to fix both problems simultaneously.

Around the time Kissinger’s book was published, the American economy began to recover. Fueled by constantly changing technology involving computers, American companies hired college graduates, and the turmoil Kissinger feared did not come to pass.

Kissinger’s central point is valid. Leaders in a democracy must be politicians, and politicians who warn of hard times ahead tend to lose elections. Big problems are hard to fix without difficult periods of transition. Ignoring big problems does not make them go away. Sooner or later, the difficult period of transition happens anyhow, and politicians respond by blaming one another.

During the last ten years, the economy has struggled. College graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Honors students with respectable degrees are working in fast food service, in stores such as WalMart, and at low-paying part time jobs in their chosen careers. The unrest described by Kissinger more than thirty years ago has arrived as he predicted: “demagoguery, political polarization, and violence.”

Is the United States of America facing its darkest days ever in 2016? I beg to differ with those who answer “yes.” Times were worse for the United States in 1861 through 1865, and probably during the years leading up to the Civil War. Times were hard during the Vietnam War and during the Watergate crisis. The Great Depression was another time of struggle and hardship for the United States. Political polarization and violence characterized those times.

Even though things have been worse, they are not good today. The word “demagoguery” is used by opponents of both major candidates for U.S. President to explain their fears. Many voters are dismayed by the choice they are being asked to make this November. Still, I believe in the balance of powers in our government. I believe that the United States which survived the 1860s and the 1960s can also survive the election of 2016. When Americans vote, I hope they will choose wise men and women to serve in Congress, men and women able to turn back the wrong ideas and plans of a dangerous President. With God’s help, America will endure. J.

Powerless

One evening last month a line of summer thunderstorms rushed through the state, bringing high winds, thunder and lightning, and heavy rains. Roughly 50,000 customers lost electric power that evening, and my family was one of those customers.

I would like to say that I was busy keeping a classroom filled with college students calm during the storm, but that would be an exaggeration. As the storm first approached, I was chatting with two of the students who had arrived early—class was not scheduled to start for another twenty minutes. When the tornado siren was heard, both students grabbed their phones to check for weather warnings. The National Weather Service had detected rotation in clouds at the other end of the county, twenty miles away, and that rotation was not moving in our direction. I reviewed with them the school’s policy in the event of a tornado warning that actually applied to us. The siren silenced after a moment, and we talked about other matters until the rest of the students arrived.

About forty-five minutes later we were aware of heavy rain striking the classroom windows. Although the blinds were closed, some flashes of lightning were evident as the storm raged. The classroom lights flickered once, but for the most part we remained focused on history, with barely a thought to the weather outdoors. By the time the class ended, the violence of the storm had moved on, and we merely had to walk to our cars in a soaking rain. I was surprised, as I drove home, to see large branches and even a tree lying by the side of the road.

When I arrived home, the house was dark. Even the orange light in the doorbell button was dark, so I knew the power was out. My family told me that the outage began the same instant as a bright flash of lightning and a loud crash of thunder; they all happened simultaneously. With no electricity, we were isolated. The telephone and the internet were inoperative; even battery-powered handheld devices could not access the internet. We could not entertain ourselves with computer games or television; we could not cook food with the stove, the oven, or the microwave. The air conditioner was not running, but the storm had cooled the air outside, so we opened the windows and allowed the breeze to blow through the house. About all that we had that was working was the hot and cold water and the grandfather clock.

But we did have candles and we did have books. I reflected upon how much I resembled Abraham Lincoln, reading the memoirs of Henry Kissinger in the flickering candlelight. One by one, we set down our books, blew out our candles, and went to sleep.

We awoke at sunrise, and the power was still out. I took a shower in the dark and then drank cold coffee with my granola bars. After breakfast I drove to work, where I had access to a working computer with internet, as well as the benefits of air conditioning, and a microwave to warm my lunch. My daughters had similar daytime benefits, thanks to their jobs at the mall.

Power was restored about eighteen hours after it had been interrupted. Most of our electronic devices and appliances still worked, although the washing machine would not work. Also a ceiling fan/light fixture was not working. I tested the electrical socket for the washing machine with an electric pencil sharpener to verify that it was receiving power. (I would have used a nightlight, but we don’t have one in the house.) It was working, so we knew we would have to call a repair worker to fix the washing machine. We emptied the ice out of the icemaker bin, knowing that the ice would have softened during the outage and would freeze into one large solid lump.

The next day we found out that our cable TV was not receiving a signal, even though the telephone and internet—which run on the same cable—were working. The cable company’s tech support talked me through the process of rebooting, but the signal did not come back. They had me try several other steps without success. They next promised to mail a new box for the cable TV. That arrived a few days later. I installed it according to instructions with no success. I got back to tech support, and after two more failed reboot attempts, they decided to send a repair worker to the house. He arrived two days later as scheduled, replaced several parts and cables, and got everything working again. I’m glad to say that the cable company did not charge us for the service. Repairing the washing machine will cost four hundred dollars, and the repair worker is still waiting for a part.

A few days after the storm I was mowing, and I was surprised to find several wood splinters in the back lawn. The first splinters I saw were by the neighbor’s fence, but I didn’t see any damage to the fence. Then I found more splinters, some longer than a foot. One was impaled in the ground at an angle, pointing in the direction of the utility pole at the corner of the property. Apparently the lightning struck the pole and traveled through the ground to my house. It’s a blessing that the damage was limited; things could have been far worse. J.