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OPINION: A U.S. history teacher scrambles to explain unprecedented attacks and desecration of democracy

When I first saw footage of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol last week, my instinctive response — before the despondency I felt at the desecration of American democracy, or the anger that would later have me shouting at my television set — was historical.

legitimacy crisis
A mob gathers outside the White House during Andrew Jackson’s first inaugural reception, 1828. Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

I scrolled through my memory for comparisons. There was the British burning of the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812, for example, and the ransacking of the White House in the exuberant celebration of Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 (the new president reputedly escaped the festivities through a window). In 1968, during the upheaval surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., rioters made it within a couple blocks of the White House.

But I knew, even as I did this, that the parallels would be inexact — and that we were now lurching into territory where the past would prove a sketchy map at best.

“Our job as educators is to make and model good conscious choices about what we believe, and to make that necessarily fallible belief system as transparent as we can…”

As a high school teacher of U.S. history, I have had a growing unease in recent years about the relevance of my vocation. For most of my teaching career, I’ve felt reasonably confident that I performed a useful civic function in giving my charges a basic core narrative about the American past — one that included justifiable pride, even confidence, in a nationhood constituted on a set of ideals that could point the way toward the better angels of our natures.

Related: OPINION: After shocking election, New York history teachers tries to alleviate ‘despair, anxiety or indignation

Yes, of course, that story was full of repeated failures to live up to those ideals, whose flawed logic was evident from the very start, evident in British essayist Samuel Johnson’s 1775 observation “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes” and Abigail Adams’s injunction to her husband to “remember the ladies” as he worked with Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. But there was always just enough refusal to give in to cynicism among our nation’s leaders and citizens that we have been able to narrow, if never entirely close, that gap between ideal and reality.

Events of the last year, heightened still further by those of the last week that are moving toward a second impeachment of President Donald Trump have me worried about what’s been termed a legitimacy crisis in our country, one that risks finally severing our confidence in the nation’s ideals.

Contemporary U.S. history teachers spend a lot of time and teaching energy focusing on the nation’s shortcomings — and for good reasons. They spend less time and attention on what kinds of authority deserve our deference and support. Indeed, even asking that question arouses suspicion in an educational establishment whose moral imagination is defined by the primacy of equality as an ideal (one that often overlooks our deepest longings for distinction).

This legitimacy crisis becomes even more acute when we consider it from the perspective of adolescents, whose chief experience of government authority has taken the form of a loutish brute whose contempt for republican institutions sends a powerful message that playing by the rules is for losers (and that only losers play by the rules).

Now more than ever, we need to identify and strengthen repositories of values and traditions that can serve as the basis of their extension, and those who embody them. This seems hard to do. But it seems even harder to do without them.

Events of the last year, heightened still further by those of the last week, have me worried about what termed a legitimacy crisis in our country, one that risks finally severing our confidence in the nation’s ideals.

Schools have an important role to play, as they’re the first and primary experience children have with authority figures, however small their ambit, and however eager teachers may be to empower their students. We all know that fostering critical thinking skills is an essential part of this process. Essential, but not sufficient: At the end of the day, all of us tend to believe what we want to believe, and the question comes down not to fact versus lie but rather which facts we deem relevant — and the moral cement that holds them in place.

We understand ourselves to be living in a secular age. For some of us, this is lamentable; for most of us, it’s a salutary fact of life. But the will to believe is a core human longing that expresses itself in multiple ways. When ignored or denied, faith is something that tends to come in through the back door, whether or not we’re willing to acknowledge it.

Our job as educators is to make and model good, conscious choices about what we believe, and to make that necessarily fallible belief system as transparent as we can for students without insisting that they share it. As such, our job is less a matter of what we say than what we do in performing our duties in our communities. When we do this reasonably well, we offer our children an instructive contrast with those—dismayingly, teachers among them who broke those windows and our hearts. But not (yet) our faith.

Jim Cullen teaches history in the newly established upper division at Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut. His forthcoming novel, Best Class You Never Had, will be published later this year.

This story about teaching American history was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletters.

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