One of the greatest challenges I face as a history professor is making course material both challenging and accessible to students.
This is also something that has been the topic of ongoing discussions with colleagues. In my career, I have found that it is far too easy for college faculty to stand firmly behind an expectation of “academic rigor” and then fail miserably at actually teaching anything. It is a simple fact that teachers teach. Without teaching, there is no student learning. One might think I would be a better student myself. Teachers teach. Students learn. It is a truth that reflects on life outside the history classroom.
With a perspective that is primarily historical, I sometimes miss the things that are right in front of me. One can spend too much time in the past (although I don’t think anyone has ever proven this) and by this, I mean that once a lesson of history is learned, it should be released.
Not forgotten, but released, so that the present and future can be informed by the past, but not controlled by it.
This is true for a nation. As it turns out, this is also true for individuals.
What do I mean when I say sometimes I miss the things that are right in front of me? An assignment I sometimes ask my students to complete, if only optionally, is to consider writing their personal history. It is an exercise meant to demonstrate that through a chronological or thematic narrative, a great story emerges that documents the human experience. Certain truths begin to emerge, and lessons reveal themselves. Besides challenging students to think historically (such as what and where are the primary source records of my life?), a happy accident is that it also provides an opportunity to explore the concept of releasing the lessons—letting go of historical events that mark various points in one’s life. A social scientist might call this, I don’t know…therapy.
Because I once wrote the history of my life up to a certain point (when it was assigned to me as therapy years ago), I only had a few years to make up when I took up this task again recently. My interest in this was academic; I wanted to see what the history book was recording about me. Soon enough, there in front of me were the lessons, things to be remembered but released.
It turns out my personal history of the past few years has shown me a few remarkably simple truths. These have been experiences that I suspect are universal to the human race and resonate with the most important lessons I’ve ever taught from a textbook: dramatic social change, wars (even the personal kind), relationships—the stuff of this life that becomes woven into history, no matter how small its scale or scope.
1) “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
Children grow up and leave home, but they never leave a mother’s heart. There will never be a time in my children’s lives when I am again as important as I once was…and yet, there will never be a time in my life when they will not be the most important things to me. It seems a cruel trick of divine order upon first inspection, but the irony is too sweet to be accidental. The lesson is in understanding that our children are teachers. Teachers teach. Students learn. It happens in every generation of mankind.
2) “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ St. Augustine.
I have learned that travel is its own epistemology. It is a way of knowing all that has been, for the people of the past do indeed live on in places of this dimension. We are bound together with all those who came before us—in the same way that those yet to come will be to us. Sometimes the weight of history is palpable. I have had the priceless gift of standing where moments of significant history have unfolded and have been humbled and awed. Similarly, I have made my own moments of significant personal history in places far from my geographic home. I like this lesson. In this regard, I am a most eager student.
3) The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” ~ Albert Einstein
The post-modern world has demoted the appeal of mystery…failing to acknowledge that we can empirically know so very little about the biggest life questions. The most acute experiences of mystery for me have occurred in only the briefest moments of time, whether it happened in contemplating the meaning of bread and wine placed upon an altar, holding the hand of a friend who was dying, looking on the face of a friend’s premature newborn, stargazing in an open rural sky, or indulging in a favorite pastime of simple bird watching. The ancients embraced mystery. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton knew it. Since the largest questions of history have been the ones that human knowledge yet falls short of answering, I have come to appreciate that life is indeed a mystery to be lived but not always understood. I’ve decided I’m okay with that.
4) Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
The tale of the Trojan horse might be historical, or it may only be myth. However, it contains a truth so common that history is replete with examples of its chief device, deception. False friends can breach walls before revealing their true colors, and entire cities have no doubt fallen because of this. In any version of this tale, it is the one who opened the gate, the one deceived by the ruse, who inevitably looks a fool. As a result, one learns to cultivate caution, not suspicion…knowing they are NOT the same thing. The lesson is one of stronger defenses, and in knowing that sometimes a teacher arrives disguised as a friend, but a teacher nonetheless.
5) History has made us friends.
In balance to lesson #4, I have seen that common language and culture, the sort of things that sociologists and historians know create genuine bonds, often extends no further than two people who use the word friend instead of ally. A language of true friendship, cultivated in a culture of trust….these are the glue that hold even the tiniest societies together. Like any nation that has occasionally been to war, I am grateful for those who sent aid and rallied to my side. Sometimes, teachers teach by simply walking alongside and listening.