Tenured Radical tagged me to write about the reasons that I love teaching history (or something to that effect). Articulating our reasons for teaching, she reasons, will be a modest attempt to break apart the notion that universities provide a mere commodity for eager cogs in the capitalist machine (or something to that effect). I figured it would also be a good balance to my previous post. GayProf doesn't spend all of his time complaining about students.
Here are the reasons that I enjoy teaching history:
1. I can facilitate students discovering that they actually do enjoy learning about the past. Until college, most students’ education worked to crush their interest in learning about the past. Social Studies (which many people confuse with “history”) most often required them to memorize names and dates until they were ready to puke. How could anybody come to like history as an academic discipline if their only exposure required them to mindlessly spill out things like the exact date of the Treaty of Paris? Does knowing that it was signed on September 3, 1783 really do much for our understanding of the nation? What does that date even mean without any sense of context about what else was happening in the rest of the world in 1783? Most students, after dutiful memorizing such things, promptly forget them twenty-four hours after their high school exam. All-night cramming leaves a bad taste in their mouth. No wonder they are often filled with dread when they see that their university will require that they take six hours of history credit.
Yet, I have found that most people are quite curious about the past outside of academic environments. That curiosity might run the gambit. Some people might wonder how certain individuals became president or why we don’t remember other presidents (*cough* William Henry Harrison *cough*). Others might wonder how our modern assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality appeared. Still others might be more interested in questions about day-to-day life in the past. Some might ask, how and where did people take a shit in New York in 1833? I am thinking of you, Torn.
All of these questions have answers if we know where to look. If I can free students from the date/name phobia, they actually start to realize that learning about the past is – gasp – interesting.
2. Teaching history encourages students to develop skills in critical thinking. This is related to number one, but so important it deserves separate mention.
Memorizing all those names and dates? It does nothing for students to acquire actual abilities to think on their own. Now that we have entered into the “No Child Left Behind” era, things look even more grim. Apparently the marker of being educated is no longer being able to reason or form arguments. Nope, the marker of an education is the ability to play Trivia Pursuit: Scantron Edition.
Teaching history at the university level offers students the opportunity to think about the ways that others have created stories about the past. They learn that there is never one true history. Instead, there are always multiple and competing narratives about the past. This requires all of us to think critically about sources, perspectives, and context as we piece together the meaning of the past.
3. It beats shoveling coal. Teaching history also doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting.
4. Teaching history can help students feel less lonely. The contemporary U.S. can be a grim place: unwinnable wars, a looming economic depression (don’t kid yourself – It’s nearly upon us. Cutting taxes again will only exacerbate the problem and continue to push the nation into debt), racism, sexism, and homophobia.
By studying the past, we learn that other people have dealt with similar (or worse) problems and survived. Individuals who identify as racial or sexual minorities, in particular, can find people in the past who weren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. Knowing such people existed can make one feel not so isolated. Because school boards mostly refuse to consider that history isn’t only about dead, white, straight men, the university classroom is often the first place that people even learn about the existence of different perspectives about the past.
5. I get to provide students with numerous anecdotes for their future cocktail parties. As I mentioned in number one, people are usually interested in the past (even if they are scarred off from the actual discipline). Interesting vignettes from history make excellent small talk for parties. Taking my class with undoubtedly improve students’ future social standing.
Did you know, for instance, that the nineteenth-century inventor of the Graham Cracker, Sylvester Graham, was obsessed with ending masturbation in young boys? Graham believed that one’s carnal desires were directly related to the food one consumed. Indeed, his cracker was imagined as part of a homeopathic system to “cure” all sorts of sexual vice. Think of that next time you make s’mores.
6. I learn a lot from students. Because history depends so much on discussion and trying out new interpretations, the classroom is not just a one-way venue where knowledge is imparted from behind the podium. I also take away new ideas.
Do I learn something from every student enrolled? Well, no. Still, there have been several students who arrived in my classroom with a different set of life experiences and/or a different intellectual trajectory that challenged and enhanced my own presumptions about the past.
7. Teaching history provides a means to buy sweet, sweet liquor. Hey, I might have noble sentiments about teaching, but it is also a paycheck. That paycheck permits me to eat, have shelter, and keep my bar quasi-stocked. Besides, with students like those mentioned in the previous entry, teaching history sometimes becomes a reason to buy sweet, sweet liquor.
8. Teaching is easier than trying to have a career in stand-up comedy. Both stand-up comedy and teaching require a lone individual to talk for an hour in front of an audience. Students, however, are usually so grateful that I make any attempt at humor in lecture that they will laugh at my corny jokes. In a night club, I would be booed off stage and possibly burned with cigarettes. Moreover, my students don't show up drunk -- most of the time.
9. By teaching history, I can provide an antidote to contemporary misuses of of the past. We would be in a sorry world if our only interpretation of the nation’s past came from politicians, CNN, Fox, or the National Treasure movies.
Teaching history gives students access to histories that were written based on, you know, evidence. Because it also provides students with critical thinking skills (see number 2), students are better prepared to identify when people are interpreting the past for their own political ends (whether it be the left or the right). Knowing that an argument is ahistorical is as important as knowing a reasonable historical argument.
Besides, any job where I can trash Nicolas Cage is well worth my time.