This initial series of posts will cover some of my background and how those experiences have shaped my passion for education.
First, how I got into education in the first place.
In my first year at Bennington College, my education professor, Bryan Duff, taught with empathy and devotion to student understanding, while intentionally modeling each and every teaching technique we were studying. He also ruined my political science class.
I arrived at Bennington College a political junkie with a debate enthusiast’s interest in history. In my first term, I took a political science course, “State, Market, and Society,” in which we alternated between full class lectures and poorly-implemented student-led discussions. The roughly five-hundred pages of material we read each week were incredibly interesting. The class, on the other hand, was painfully dull. I realized that my interest in political science had grown in high school because I had fantastic teachers who were able to engage and empower me. Each week my education class opened my eyes to how much better the political science course might be. By the end of the term I was certain that political science, while interesting, could not be my sole course of study. Education had such depth, such optimism, such wide reaching applications. It was at the core of everything else.
My high school teachers taught me to love learning about politics, argument, and history. Professor Duff taught me to love teaching, but he also also did something else: he revealed how he did it. This revelation enabled me as a student to discover a love of learning in a vast array of academic pursuits. In particular, I developed wide interests and a deep knowledge of history. But I never felt fulfilled by just learning; I needed to teach. I needed to help others discover that love of learning.
History is all about identity. While working at a underperforming school in the Richmond, Virginia, a student asked me out of the blue, “Did your people used to hate my people? Like before now?” I asked who he meant by “your” and “my” people. “White people and black people,” he replied. Suddenly, this thorny historical question was at the center of our relationship, the center of the interaction of our identities. I would like to say that I had a good answer prepared for that question. I did not. So instead I started asking questions. “Well, what does it mean to hate someone? Can you consider white people to be a single group? Black people? Did either group see themselves as a single entity? If so, when did they come to see themselves that way?” Without those questions, those pieces of historical inquiry, I would not have been able to engage productively with our shared past. Really learning history encourages students to ask historical questions more often, and when they do, it enables them to get far more out of it. Without the ability to critically engage with the past, students are at the mercy of adept manipulators of history: politicians, advertisers, businesses, parents, and historians, all jockeying to define their identities. Such abilities are not easily or simply acquired.
That is why I believe history education to be so essential for the development of active, empowered and engaged citizens. And that topic I will cover further in my next post.