Wednesday, April 9, 2014

You are reading what is now an archive of approximately 500 discrete posts. American History Now began as a blog at the dawn of the Obama era on February 4, 2009 with a piece about "Outlaw Pete," a song on Bruce Springsteen's new album Working on a Dream (which in retrospect looks like one of the Boss's weaker efforts, though the song holds up well). In the years since, a new post for American History Now has gone up anywhere from once to three times a week. They can be categorized the following ways:
  • Posts that chronicled the lives of fictive students and teachers (The Felix Chronicles, The Maria Chronicles, and the Horace Chronicles, which ran at at History News Network in the winter and spring of 2014) and can be seen in their entirety here;
  • Posts that functioned as excerpts of first drafts of books, principally Sensing the Past, which was published in 2013, as well as A Short History of the Modern Media (2014) and an abortive book project on the history of the self-made man (it was eventually published as a long essay in The Hedgehog Review in 2013);
  • Book reviews that were cross-posted at the HNN book page, where I was a Book Review editor from 2009 to 2014;
  • Short posts on what I've been reading, watching or listening to on vacation or traveling;
  • Some miscellaneous stuff (ranging from tributes to Abraham Lincoln to Billy Joel).
I began this blog for two basic reasons:
  1. To participate in some of the excitement about new media, and the opportunities for ordinary people to become bloggers and publish work in ways that had previously been limited to those with access to capital, the professional publishing infrastructure, or both;
  2. To give me a creative outlet at a time when I was between book projects and was unsure what do to next.
So, has American History Now been a success? I guess I'd say yes: any enterprise that helped keep me out of trouble -- which is to say has given me at least an illusion of purpose for five years -- has been valuable. The blog has had about 150,000 page views, which is strictly small potatoes, though a handful of my pieces have been accessed thousands of times, which I think counts as a small audience, one that's both global and unlikely to have exposure to my work any other way.  On the other hand, I haven't exactly found fame and fortune.

I've decided to suspend this blog (and book reviewing for HNN) to concentrate on writing books. I'm currently working on a cultural history of the United States from 1945 to the present, which I hope will see the light of day at some point. But uncertainty, I've discovered, lies near the very essence of the writing life.

In closing, I'd like to thank three sets of people: my family, for sustaining (and putting up with) me; Google, whose Blogger platform has been a truly marvelous gift, and you, dear reader, for the privilege of your attention. May you find a lifetime of pleasure in the written word, wherever you may happen to encounter it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


in which we see a chronicle of history born anew

This is the final installment of the Secret Life of Teaching published at HNN.

By Horace Dewey

            I make a detour when I arrive at school for a final round of faculty meetings to take a look at the quad. Surprisingly, there are no obvious traces of yesterday’s ceremonies. Less than 24 hours ago, this space was teeming with parents, grandparents, alums, and hundreds of students —- some of whom were wearing caps and gowns and about to dissolve into living ghosts. Today, all that remains is a sole folding chair. And since it’s brown, not black like the hundreds that had been set up, I’m not even sure it was here yesterday. The only sign that anything relatively unusual had happened are the distressed stripes of grass running horizontally across the quad. The maintenance crew will take care of that in pretty short order, and this space will revert to a stretch of silence, punctuated only by the occasional round of elementary school day-campers singing here on summer afternoons, or administrators walking to and from their cars. Birds and bees will hold dominion for a season.
            I’m relieved it’s finally over. It’s been three weeks since the seniors finished classes, a period punctuated by end-of-the-year parties, final exams, the prom, the senior dinner, and other rituals. Graduation is the most tedious. People typically experience a string over a string of a dozen or so years: elementary school and middle school, then high school, college, each a little more bittersweet and dogged by anxiety, followed perhaps by a postgraduate degree. And then that’s it for a generation. But we teachers (especially high school teachers) go through the process every year. The students, the speeches, the recitation of the school song: they all tend to run together. If anything is likely to be memorable, it’s the weather: hot or rainy, surprisingly cool or surprisingly beautiful. There’s usually a moment of genuine gladness at some point in the morning, as we witness the visible signs of maturity in some of our charges. And there’s often a moment of genuine regret, too, when we face an esteemed colleague’s retirement, the graduation of the final child in a cherished family, or a fond farewell from a clutch of friends who complemented each other so nicely. Any of these people may reappear at some point, in some perhaps transfigured way. But the uncertainty of such scenarios, and the certainty of time’s passage, make such moments bittersweet at best.
            It’s always a relief when you get in the car and head home after such rituals, and I’m glad to seize a life, however quotidian, that’s truly my own. For years now, it’s been my habit to come home from graduation and mow the lawn. I think of Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” which depicts a recently returned Civil War soldier threshing wheat. Figuratively speaking, my campaign is over, and I’m eager to get back to my farm. 
            This notion of closure is among the greatest satisfactions of teaching. Other walks of life are comparably cyclical. But I don’t think any afford the kind of clean lines and closed books that a life in schools does. Many working people take extended summer vacations, but few of them are as expansive and sharply chiseled as that afforded by an academic schedule. As we are all veterans of schooling, this experience is a virtual birthright. But only teachers refuse to relinquish it. 
            The time will come—unexpectedly quickly —when my longings will turn away from completion and repose toward the rebirth that comes with the fall. In my case, the longings typically return long before it's time to actually return to the classroom. But as I make my way from meeting to meeting, from a final faculty softball came to a final trip to the local watering hole before we all disperse, I pause to savor the cadence. The present is past. And history will be born anew.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


in which we see a teacher discuss the only thing more private than his sex life

The Secret Life of Teaching, #9

By Horace Dewey

I stare at the calculator: $281.92. That’s what I have to work with in terms of a monthly car payment. My wife, a soccer mom who totes three kids (a fourth is in college) and a couple dogs all over metropolitan New York about 2,000 miles a month, drives too much to lease one. We’ll have to buy—hopefully new, maybe used. But 281.92 a month for five years will only get us about halfway there.  She and I have been doing extra work—summer classes, SAT II prep, etc. to make up the difference (and pay for a looming set of braces on our youngest).
I find all this exhausting, even depressing, to contemplate. I shouldn’t.  My salary has gone up substantially over the course of the last decade, thanks a series of good contracts and my recent promotion to department chair. I now make more than double what I did when I started at the school a dozen years earlier, and recently broke through the sixth figure in my salary, putting me at the top of the profession. I am—by most measures of most jobs—well paid. Alas, I seem to have found ways to deploy my assets as soon as they’ve appeared. A big chunk of my take-home pay, roughly $6500/month, or $78,000 annually, goes to cover the schooling expenses of my children; even with a substantial staff discount, tuition for the two currently in the school takes up about 40%, or $32,000, of it. The rest of it goes to pay our $2300 monthly mortgage payment and about $1500 a month in property taxes, which I gladly pay since I have a learning-disabled child in a good public school system. That leaves the salary of my wife, an associate professor at a nearby liberal arts college who makes a little less, to cover everything else, with the significant exception of my eldest child’s college tuition, covered thanks to the generosity and foresight of my in-laws. We spend too much on takeout, and too little on things like home maintenance (our house steadily becomes more shabby—cracks in the driveway, fingerprints on the walls, a running battle against mildew in our bathrooms). And we don’t give enough to charity. A new minivan has already been deferred a couple times, and waiting much longer is asking for a harrowing breakdown on the highway with kids and or dogs in the old one.
I tell you these fairly quotidian details about my financial situation in part because it’s the kind of thing my peers just don’t talk about—I sometimes think people in my demographic are much more willing talk about the tenor of their orgasms than the tenor of the their finances—but also quite curious about. I also believe my circumstances—and, more importantly, my attitudes—are typical of an educator of my generation and point in the life cycle. (The proportion of my income that goes to my children’s schooling, for example, is an amount most people in other lines of work would consider absurd. I reckon we all have our indulgences, mine typical of my profession.) Like a great many Americans, I consider myself middle class, whether or not the facts—in my case, a gross family income of about $200,000 in lower Westchester County—warrant such a designation. I do think, with the support of some expert opinion I find in the business section of the New York Times and other publications that I regularly graze, that supporting such a lifestyle is relatively more expensive than it used to be. I live better than my parents, a housewife and a New York City firefighter, did. But the rate of improvement has been slowed by the rate of inflation for things like housing and education. And having four kids? Financially speaking, that’s just plain dumb.
Whatever the pay scale, few jobs seem more thoroughly middle class than teaching. No one ever gets rich as a teacher. Still, while it’s relatively low on the professional ladder, teaching is a bona fide career in a society where the middle is being whittled out of existence. Teachers are still generally on the right side of a jagged economic divide in that we receive salaries (not hourly wages), health care benefits, and paid vacation. Teaching has been an actual profession for a little over a century now, a development spurred by a series of convergent phenomena: a Progressive movement that spurred professionalization in many occupations; the emergence of education schools offering graduate degrees; and an influx of men taking what has often been considered “women’s work.”
Teaching has never had the prestige associated with law or medicine (though that of both has deteriorated in recent years), or the excitement associated with journalism (less professionally structured and not especially remunerative for most of its history, but alluring for its access to power and/or the spotlight). Nor does primary- or secondary school teaching enjoy the sense of stature associated with college or university instruction, which has generally placed much more emphasis on producing original scholarship than actively fostering the art of pedagogy. In terms of social cachet, primary and secondary education has a relationship with the professoriate that can be compared with that of medicine and nursing: as nurses are to doctors, teachers are to professors. The former are generalists who take care of what are perceived as the less complicated cases, often knowing and doing more than they get credit for, while the latter enjoy greater stature rooted in their analytic skills. (Again there are gender echoes here, as teaching and nursing have long been regarded as feminine “helping” professions).
I speak as a failed academic. I went to graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I got a Ph.D. in American Studies. I held on for almost a decade in adjunct positions—a couple very attractive ones, but all of them dead ends. I might have held on longer had not the arrival of children (among them unexpected set of twins and even more medically surprising daughter) rendered the long-distance commute I’d been doing untenable. It was time to grow up and think seriously about making money. Lacking the credentials to teach in public school, I was lucky to land a position at my current post, believing from the start that it would likely be the first and last real job I’d ever be offered. White, male, old, and overpriced in a market that prizes youth and diversity, I’m probably now unemployable were I try to teach anywhere else.
My gaze shifts back to the $281.92 on my calculator. Multiplied by 12, that’s $3383.04 a year; over the course of a five-year loan it adds of up to $16,902.20. What about interest? How much would depend on the rate. I’m getting close to the edge of my numeric competency in any case. I figure I’ll need about $15,000 as a down payment. Damn. For thirty grand I could probably get a pretty nice sports car. Not this time.
 I remember joke a cousin of mine once cracked: “When a pretty girl smiles at you when you pull up at a traffic light while driving a minivan, that’s all you, man.” I’m not in the market for pretty girls anymore. I’m just trying to get the job done—or, I should say, to do one job well enough and long enough to get another one—that of family man—done. Then, surely, I’ll be on easy street ….

Monday, March 17, 2014

Smart Board, Dumb Teacher

in which we see the advantages of technology (and its discontents)

The Secret Life of Teaching, #8
By Horace Dewey

Mid-morning, mid-March. Outside, it’s frigid. Inside, the radiator heat makes me woozy. A few history teachers have gathered here in my classroom, at the behest of Hannah, our department principal, for training on the Smart Boards we’ve all received as part of the school’s latest technology upgrade. One more round of being nudged to learn things we never want know and will be incompetent with when we try. I’ve made my peace with Smart Boards as a matter of using them as glorified projectors. But now we’re being nudged to use them for classroom note-taking and other tasks. So it is that the rising waters of technological innovation still manage to reach us. Now we get to be the confused, bored, and resentful students.
Our technology maven, Jessica, an impressively competent outside consultant who’s clearly younger than her salt-and-pepper mane would suggest, is chatting away about all the tools and applications that are now at our disposal with the new software that can be easily downloaded at . . . I didn’t quite hear and don’t want to ask. My colleague Tony Snowden, who’s always been an early-adopter—he had an iPhone on day one—is querying her closely on how to access the feature she had been showing us before she moved on to whatever it is that she’s now doing. “You just go and adjust the settings on the system preferences menu,” she says, and Tony nods with satisfaction. “Just be sure you have it on the default settings option,” she adds.
Oh,” Ed Vinateri says sarcastically. “The system preferences menu. “Naturally.”
“Of course,” Tony says in a tone of good-natured ribbing, “your default setting is permanently set to off, Ed.”
Absolutely,” he replies, happy to be the butt of a joke.
Our maven renders a thin smile. I have a fleeting sense of sympathy for her: it must be tedious to talk to idiots all day. I glance up at the clock. I’m missing a workout on the Stairmaster; the gym is usually empty this period.
Actually, there had been a point when I was looking forward to this session. At last year’s professional day, I had watched in amazement as one of my colleagues in the science department wrote with a virtual marker on a whiteboard and then instantly turned the words into type. Given the complaints and queries I constantly get whenever I write on the blackboard, this was something I was truly interested in learning about. Despite a twinge of unease to see those slate boards go—I was surprised when picking up my daughter from a recent playdate to see that her host had a huge blackboard in his kitchen, surely a sign that what was once a commonplace object was well on its way to becoming an antique—I was ready to finish stepping into the 21st century. Though of course many of the skills I was most eager to learn were ones I could have picked up years ago.
I note that our maven is just now beginning to demonstrate the latest aspects of the handwriting-to-text feature, and raise my hand. “Could we use a real-life example?” I ask. She’s reluctant, I can see from the fleeting expression of irritation that almost imperceptibly crosses her face. But I leap to the front of the room, grab a green virtual marker, and start writing some points I plan to use in class that very day. “You might want to go a little slower,” she says from behind me, having adjusted to my imposition. I try to write:

• Land (farming)
• Mining
• Ranching

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that my handwriting on the Smart Board is even worse than it is on a blackboard—smears of green sludge.
“You have to learn to write differently,” our maven says.
“Is that all?” Ed asks.
She ignores him. “You have to write more with your shoulder.” She demonstrates the motion. I nod as if I understand and grab the virtual eraser, dismayed that my sludge doesn’t disappear.
“You have to put the marker down first before you can erase.”
I do so. Now the eraser works, more or less. When I put it down, she comes over, takes the red marker and models how I should actually write. It of course looks perfectly legible.
“Now,” she explains as I take my seat again, “in order to turn this into type you must first turn it into an object.” She moves her index finger across her text and a box forms. She moves her finger to a small square on the upper-right hand corner of the box and a string of suggested words appears: “Sources of welts/Sources of welfare/Sources of wealth” and a few more I can’t quite take in. She selects “Sources of wealth” and voila: handwriting becomes type.
“Now you turned ‘sources of wealth’ into what you call an object,” I observe. But do you have to make a separate object for each line of the Smart Board?”
Now I’m truly discouraged. It all seems like so much work: making sure you have the right settings; making sure you don’t pick up the eraser while you still have a marker; making sure you write the right way; drawing boxes around the objects; hoping you’ll get the right option for turning it into text: surely it’s simpler just to pick up a piece of chalk, no?
“I gotta run,” says Tony. This session has probably been pitched too low for him. He likes to tinker anyway. I look up at the clock again, and see that if I leave now I can squeeze in that workout after all. I see Ed is also motioning to go. He’s saying something to the maven that makes her break into a broad smile: a divide has been bridged. But not a technological divide: He and I have learned little useful information. We probably needed a day, not an hour. But a day would just be too much with everything else we have going on.
That night as I brush my teeth it occurs to me that some of my students must feel the way I did earlier that day—probably not about technology, which they seem to take to instinctively, but some of the academic work they’re asked to do. They find it hard but pretend they don’t or try to laugh it off. They fake their way for a while, maybe get the hang of aspects of a subject, and try to keep moving. It’s the improvising that ends up being the skill that gets developed—the bluffing, faking, and ad-hoc adaptation.
Three days later, a canceled meeting unexpectedly gives me a half hour, and I walk into my empty classroom. I turn on the computer and Smart Board, and begin stumbling around. A half-hour later, I’ve managed to write “Tomorrow’s class will meet in the library” and turn it into text. A triumph. I have no clear idea how facile I’ll ever be on this thing; I suspect I’ll settle into some simple routines that I won’t wander from very much. But I know I have to do this. There’s some part of me that will die less quickly if I do. Truth be told, I'm a little surprised, and more than a little pleased, that I'm not quite ready to be erased.

Monday, March 10, 2014


in which a walk in the woods leads to a fishing expedition

The Secret Life of Teaching, #7

By Horace Dewey

            "OK kids, listen up!" Denise Richardson bellows to the crowd of students on the edge of Walden Pond. "I'm going to go over the assignment one more time. You must follow the directions ...."
            I’m stunned by how beautiful the pond is on this autumnal morning. The foliage shimmers on the still water and bursts against the crystalline sky. Dubious about this part of the overnight field trip—instructing students to go into the woods and have a Transcendental moment strikes me as a contradiction in terms—I’m nevertheless delighted to be here. In the afternoon, I’ll be one of a set of teachers leading classes along the Freedom Trail. I’m looking forward to indulging with a cannoli at Quincy Market.
            I’m jostled back into attentiveness by an unexpected moment of silence that is apparently the result of Denise looking at her watch. "You will have fifty minutes," she tells the students. "That's enough time to walk around the whole perimeter if you want to, but you'll have to keep a good pace. She turns and points to her left. "If you simply want to see the site where Thoreau had his cabin, walk straight this way. It will take you about ten minutes. Whatever you decide, you have to be back on the bus at 11 sharp. Hey! Alan!" Denise claps twice and points at a sleepy student I don’t know (which is most of this batch). "To be awake is to be alive!" Some chuckles; I wonder if they get the allusion or are simply amused by the contrast between Denise’s no-nonsense energy and Alan's torpor. "All right then," she concludes. "Go!"
            The students stand around dumbly for a moment, but begin to disperse with growing momentum. "I'm going over to the gift shop," Denise tells me. "I have to make some phone calls. I'll be over in a little while to help round up this herd of cats." I nod and begin walking around the pond, beginning at the far side from the cabin site.
            I have ambivalent feelings about Thoreau. I’ve no patience for the cranky misfit of "Civil Disobedience," who thought he could simply opt out of paying taxes he didn't like. And no man who has his mother and sister do his laundry can call himself self-reliant. But for all his prickliness, I sense an inner struggle to live the words, and know that dismissing him as a phony is a little like complaining that sinning churchgoers are hypocrites: it's missing the point. I’m intrigued that Walden Pond is not—was not—the wilderness, in fact within easy walking distance from the village of Concord. I read that a railroad ran near the actual site of the celebrated cabin in Thoreau’s time, and apparently still does. Looking ahead I see a cluster of students, and evidence of a rail bed off to the left. I veer away from it so I can continue to savor my solitude.
            I haven’t gone far off the main trail when I see two still figures lying side by side in a bed of pine about 100 feet away. They are not engaged in an overt sex act, but the sense of intimacy is unmistakable. From the angle of my approach I can only see sneaker bottoms clearly; the rest is partially hidden in evergreens. One kid apparently has his hands behind his head; the other appears nestled beside him. I don't recognize them, but either or both could be my students. Though I feel obligated to break up this idyll, I’m charmed by it. Years from now, long after Denise Richardson’s (undone?) assignment is forgotten, this will be what these two remember from this trip. Surely even a loner like Thoreau would, or should, approve.
            I hear a voice shouting off far to her right. "Horace? Is that you?" It's Denise, motioning a cluster of students to keep moving toward the group's starting point. "Yes!" I respond forcefully. As I do, the two students scramble to their feet and begin running away, presumably to circle behind the cabin site and rejoin the group there. As they do, I see that they're both boys.
            "Will you backtrack a bit and round up any slackers?" Denise asks.
            "Sure,” I say, turning around and walking in the opposite direction. While I scrunch my eyes, trying to determine if I recognize either boy, I’m approached by my favorite student, Wilhelmina Sperry, notebook in hand, clearly running to make up lost time and ground.
            "It's OK, Willie," I say reassuringly. "Is there anybody else back there?"
            "No. I’m the last one," she says as she slows to a walk and adjusts her glasses, clearly out of breath. "I wanted to take a few more minutes to make some notes about a spider web I found. I guess I lost track of time."
            "Good for you." Willie and I are now walking toward the bus at exactly the same pace.
            "I love it here," she says. "That was a good assignment. Now that I've actually seen the pond, I need to re-read the parts of Walden we discussed in class."
            "Sounds like a good idea."
            A pause. And then: "Mr. Dewey, would you call Thoreau a Romantic writer?"
            "Well, not exactly. Not in what I think of in the classic sense of the term, like Wordsworth or Emerson. But I'm sure a lot of people would."
            "I just love him."
            "Fair enough. But remember, Willie: it's a big world out there. There are lots of fish in the pond."
            Willie turns her head at me, smiling. "You're not talking about how they restock the pond with fish."
            "No, Willie, I am not."
            Willie’s smile breaks into a chuckle. "OK, Mr. Dewey. I'll keep my standards up.”
            "Thatta girl, Willie. Any writer would be lucky to catch you. Any non-writer, too."

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Gingerly Revising

in which a student and a teacher confront their limits

The Secret Life of Teaching, #6

By Horace Dewey

            Ginger has come to see me to talk about her latest essay. This is a meeting neither one of us particularly wants to have—she’s surely dreads it; I’m knee-deep in the middle of recalibrating my spring semester syllabus when she arrives. But now that our unplanned encounter, largely orchestrated by others, is happening, we’re both doing our best to make it worthwhile.
            I’ve known for weeks now that Ginger is a weak student. Utterly silent in class, she never handed in her first essay of the new semester, and when I asked her about it a couple days after it was due, she said that she had a bad Internet connection. That’s fine, I said. Just give me a hard copy tomorrow. When that didn’t happen, she said she was having printer problems, and would drop it off later that day. When that didn’t happen, I sent an email to her parents. The essay materialized the next day, along with apologies for the delays from them and her. Minimally acceptable in terms of content and structure, I decided that this was not a good time to tell her to do it again—I inferred I’d already caused some tumult in her household, and establishing a reputation as a remorseless academic stalker would not be the best way to promote a working relationship. But clearly, I was going to have to keep an eye on her.
Her next essay, handed in on time, was even weaker. In my comments, I beat around the bush a bit, commending her for her evident engagement and willingness to grapple with the question, but finally confessed that I found it—hesitating to use the word, but deciding it was best—“incoherent.” I asked her to come and see me so that we could plot a course for revision. I felt both justified and guilty for this approach. Justified, because I felt it important to both be willing to help as well as ask her to take responsibility for her work, and guilty because I was asking her to demonstrate a level of maturity she’d already shown she lacked. I always feel a tug between trying to nudge my students along and protecting my time, and at some level I knew that if I wasn’t more proactive with Ginger, she’d slip my mind. As indeed she did.
            It was her parents who pushed the process along, sending around group emails to her teachers asking for feedback about her work a couple weeks later. A flurry of email exchanges with her advisor followed, which culminated in a phone call from the school learning specialist telling me that she happened to be with Ginger as we spoke and wondering if she could send her my way. Yes, I said, turning back to my work with the added fervor of knowing it was going to be interrupted momentarily.
Now she’s here at my desk, backpack at her feet, awaiting her fate. Dark hair, dark eyes, she’s pretty, maybe even striking, but her sense of vulnerability is so palpable that it overrides any other attribute. I try to set her at her ease. Where do you live, Ginger (uptown), what do you your folks do (they’re both on the business side of the television industry), do you have any siblings (an older half-sister from her father's previous marriage). Her answers are direct, earnest, and dead ends. This is not a conversation.
“What do you do for fun, Ginger?”
“I dunno,” she replies. “Nothing, really.” Then, brightly, as if she’s suddenly realized the solution to an algebra problem that’s been posed to her: “I decided this week to work on sets for the spring musical!”
“That’s great,” I say, wishing I could make that ember flare. But I don’t have the presence of mind to ask her what she’s making, how the show is going, or something to keep the momentum going. The only thought that comes to mind is that she'll have one more reason to put off grappling with her academic difficulties. And I think, not for the first time, that I have a worse track record with girls than boys when it comes to dealing with struggling students.
We proceed to talk about her course work. Usually math and science are harder than history and English, but this year it seems to be the other way around. Last semester’s history teacher was different, she tells me. More facts and dates and smaller, more manageable, assignments. From another kid, this would be barely veiled criticism. I don’t think she means it that way, though perhaps she should. But we need to get down to the business at hand.
“So what did you understand my message to you to be in my comments?” I ask. This is a standard gambit of mine; it’s helpful for students to interpret what I said in their own words, and for me to be prompted, dozens of essays and days later, about what I said to one kid in particular.
“That I was incoherent,” she replies. Ugh. She got that message, all right.
I prompt her to tell me what she was thinking about when she was writing the essay, and once she gets launched on a little soliloquy, things get easier. I jot down some notes as she talks, structuring her various points into a simple outline. The essay she’s narrating is rudimentary, and doesn’t quite answer the question I ask. But if she can actually execute what she’s saying on paper, we’ll be making a discrete step forward.
I show her the outline. “Does this make sense to you?”
She looks at it intently. “Yes,” she says. “I had a pretty clear idea when I sat down, but I felt like I had so many ideas in my head, and I have attention deficit issues, and I dunno . . . .” her voice trails off. I don’t think she wanted to surrender the fact of a learning disability to me. But this is apparently what she’s supposed to do, and she’s going to play her part.
“I sort of understand,” I tell her. “I have a kid with learning disabilities. I won’t tell you I know what that’s like, but I think I have some notion of the issues.” She looks me in the eye for the first time. She understands my gesture for what it is, and her acknowledgment feels like one in its own right.
My problem now is that I don’t know where to go with this. I know it’s very easy to say the wrong thing—promise too much, offer too little. Our silence is awkward. Ginger pulls together the two sides of the unzipped hoodie she’s wearing over her scoop-necked shirt, something she’ll do repeatedly in the remainder of our meeting. This saddens me.
Back to the task at hand. She’s going to work off this blueprint. She asks when I want the revised version. I ask when’s good for her. She tells me to tell her. How’s Friday. All right, then. We agree to meet again before an upcoming test. “This is going to work out fine,” I tell her. “I know it’s hard—it’s hard for everyone, no one writes effortlessly—but it’s going to be fine.” She smiles at me, hopefully and doubtfully, as she returns her papers to her backpack and zips it up. Our meeting is over.
Mom will follow up with an email; I promise to read multiple drafts. But it's been a few weeks now, and nothing has happened. Ginger avoids eye contact again whenever possible. Maybe she'll pull things together on my watch, or someone else's. She has the good fortune—if at times she surely regards it as a mixed blessing—of people looking after her. But for me the whole encounter is a reminder of the limited ability of teachers generally, and this teacher in particular, to fill the unaccountable holes that riddle our lives.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Progressive Faith

in which our narrator considers the curiously broad appeal of John Dewey

The Secret Life of Teaching, #5

By Horace Dewey -- no (biological) relation

I write five words on the whiteboard five times, each time underlining a different word:

All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.
All men are created equal.

            “So, kids, are any of these statements true?” I ask, turning around to face the class. “I mean, what a crock of bull, right? How could Jefferson—himself a slave owner—possibly be serious?" 
A few wry smiles. Some of them have apparently asked themselves this question before. 
I love that line!" Vanessa Thompson, ever the contrarian in her vintage Sex Pistols t-shirt. But she’s been too busy chatting with Janey Orlov to be much of a presence today. 
            “Doesn’t matter whether they believe it," says Eduardo Salinas. "It’s propaganda. 
I try to mask my surprise. This is the first time I’ve heard from Eduardo all year. I want to kindle the flame without smothering him.
“You think they’re lying?
            “Dunno,” he replies. “Maybe. 
“You called this ‘propaganda.’ What do you mean by that? 
            “I mean they’re trying to persuade people. 
Can propaganda be true? 
“I guess.”
“Do you think they were trying to persuade themselves?”
 Eduardo shrugs. I can’t tell if he’s expressing skepticism or a desire to be let off the hook. 
“I think they did believe it,” Zoe Leoni says without raising her hand. “I mean, you kind of have to believe it if you’re going to stick your neck out like that."
“You say 'they. Do 'they' all think the same way? 
“No, probably not. But I don’t think they really have any choice. They’re desperate, right? Didn’t you say yesterday that there’s like this big invasion the British are planning?”
“Right. They’ve already landed on Long Island. They’re headed for Manhattan even as the Declaration of Independence is being written.”
 “So of course they’re going to talk about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So it sounds like they’re the good guys. 
“But how do they think they can get away with it?”
            “It was a bunch of rich white guys who wanted other people to help them,” Derek Simonson, who sits next to Eduardo, blurts out with an edge of impatience in his voice. Wonder of wonders: two silent types in one day. 
“I think you’re absolutely right,” I say, more eager to encourage him than to pursue the angle of ideological difference between the revolutionaries. “A big part of the Declaration was designed to attract foreign support, especially the French. But here’s what I wonder, Derek: Is this really the best language to use in order to do something like this? Let’s assume you’re right: these guys are essentially a bunch of frauds, and that people then could see through them then just like you are now. I'm reminded of the famous writer Samuel Johnson’s response to the colonists: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps of liberty from the drivers of negroes?’ So how is a lot of talk of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness really going to convince anybody?”
Jiian Cheng raises his hand, and I acknowledge him. "I don’t think they really have any choice. I mean, you gotta start somewhere.”
Laura Lynn wants to weigh in and I nod to her. “Jiian’s right. It’s an important first step.”
“A step towards what?”
“Freedom. Independence. All that stuff.”
“Well, OK.” I point at the whiteboard. “But this says ‘all men are created equal.’”
She hesitates. Then: “Yeah, that too.”
“So freedom and equality go together? How does this work—first we get the freedom, then we do equality?”
She’s lost. “Yeah, kinda.”
I shift my gaze from Laura and make a puzzled expression to the class generally.  “I don’t get it, kids. What does freedom have to do with equality? Are they the same thing?” 
What I regard as a fruitful line of discussion is disrupted by Wilhelmina (a.k.a. Willie) Sperry, who has already emerged as one of my favorite kids, maybe of all time. I often see Willie walking the hallways, hunched over a backpack that looks like it’s crushing her and bearing a grim expression in marked contrast to the animated child who’s most fully alive in the classroom. In other words, a girl after my own heart. Not pretty, really—red-haired, flat-chested and a little scrawny, Willie’s warm personality has always made her appealing, at least to adults and what seems to be a small circle of friends. But will the boys see it? (Maybe it won’t matter; maybe she’s gay.) Willie, who has been silently following this conversation with her usual intensity, chooses this moment to raise her hand. But I’m disappointed that she seems to be taking us way off course.   “They’re hypocrites,” she says. “The King simply has to go after them. If they’re allowed to get away with this, it would set a bad example. They have insulted him . . . . 
I begin to lose track of what Willie is saying. For one thing, it seems tangential: what does the King have to do with what we’ve been talking about? For another, I realize I’m hungry. And yet I marvel at how fully immersed she is in this discourse. Even Janey Orlov has noticed. Not approvingly.
I cut her off. “I’m not sure we need to shed any tears for George III, Willie. If there’s anyone in the world who can brush off some punk critics, surely it’s him. But I tell you who I am worried about,” I say, pausing for effect. “The King of Spain.” I put my hand on my chin, and narrow my eyes. "I mean, here’s a guy who’s going to be losing sleep at night." 
"Who is the King of Spain?" Willie asks, genuinely curious.
I dunno," I reply, not changing my expression. "Carlos the twenty-something. They were all called Carlos back then." The class breaks into laughter.
"See, here’s the problem,” I say when it subsides. There’s nothing old Carlos would like more than to stick it to Britain. He wants it so badly he can almost taste it. The problem is that if he and his Bourbon cousin Louis XVI enter an American war against Britain on the side of a group of rebels who have issued this revolutionary manifesto, then his own subjects in places like Mexico and Peru might actually begin to take some of the nonsense in that manifesto seriously. And that would be a real mess.” 
“So what does he do?" This from Vanessa, who’s back among us. My, my: I am on a roll today. 
“Well, ultimately, he takes the plunge—he joins France and declares war on Britain. And his fears prove justified, because even though he gets some real estate out the deal, within a generation all hell breaks loose in Central and South America. Eventually, the Mexicos and Perus of the world declare their own independence. The King of France, who tended not to worry as much, ends up literally losing his head in the name of abstract ideals like freedom and equality—which, I’ll point out in passing, we’re still lumping together as if they’re two sides of the same coin. We can’t blame all of this on the Declaration of Independence, of course. But it certainly didn’t help matters if you’re the King of Spain." 
            “Which,” I continue, after a pause, “is another way of saying that you’re right, Eduardo and Derek. The Declaration of Independence was a piece of propaganda by a bunch of rich white guys who were desperate enough to say whatever they thought might help them at that particular moment. The problem is that in so doing they let a genie out of a bottle, because some people, despite much evidence to the contrary, actually began to believe what the Declaration said—or, maybe more accurately, they acted as if they believed what the Declaration said. ‘Acted,’ in the sense that they pretended, and ‘acted’ also in the sense that they ended up doing things that they otherwise might not have done had there been no Declaration of Independence. That genie ended up doing a whole lot of mischief all over the world. 
“Still does,” says Willie with a smile.
“You think so?”
“Yes.” Willie is firm. So smart, so innocent. Eduardo is packing up his books: my signal that my time is up. Derek is looking, inscrutably, at Willie. Oh, dear girl.
“You think so too, Zoe? You think Willie is right?”
She nods.
“Well, then, I guess we’ve figured this all out. See you tomorrow.”

* * *

People of all temperaments and ideological persuasions become teachers, but the nature of the job as it’s currently constituted makes them instinctive progressives. I should add that I’m using the term in multiple senses, some of which I am avowedly skeptical. But their valences are powerful and should be recognized, even if they’re not dominant in the U.S. education system in particular or American society generally.
In its most specific educational formulation, the word “progressive” refers to a pedagogical philosophy that took root in the late nineteenth century and has in various iterations persisted to this day. Its patron saint is John Dewey. Central to Dewey’s vision was an emphasis on process (discussion) over product (test scores); subjective experience over objective truth; learning by doing rather than having information delivered. As a movement, progressive education in this country probably peaked in the 1930s, and has largely persisted as an alternative educational subculture in the decades since.
That said, important elements of the progressive ethos have long been absorbed as common sense even in schools that consider themselves traditional. Such schools may emphasize traditional values, basic skills, and mastery of content (and relentless testing). But they will hardly disparage—indeed, they will likely explicitly uphold—critical thinking, diversity of thought and experience, and pragmatic problem solving, all of which are hallmarks of progressive education. Virtually no educators will assert the primacy or necessity of lecturing as the best or only means of delivering instruction, even when teacher-centered information delivery is the primary approach. Ironically, one of the major problems for the contemporary progressive education movement as a movement is that many of its core ideas are now taken for granted, even when they conflict with others. So it is that parents and educators insist on growth and rigor, or diversity and continuity, whether or not they’re simultaneously achievable.
The second way teachers tend to be progressive is more generally political. In school systems of all sizes, where different constituencies jockey for maximum room to maneuver, teachers are the inheritors of the Progressive tradition—note the capital “P” to distinguish indicate the movement in electoral politics that spanned roughly from 1900 to 1920. It’s important to note, however, that there was a curious bifurcation in the Progressive movement that it never entirely resolved. On of the one hand, early Progressives were locally based, experimental, and highly empirical in their approach to social reform (not just in schools, but also business regulation, municipal services, and electoral reform, among other initiatives). They were very much bottom-up. On the other hand, Progressives were also—and this became increasingly apparent as the movement gained momentum in the second decade of the twentieth century, when it dominated that nation’s political life in both major parties—great centralizers of power, as long as it was concentrated in the hands of independent experts who acted in the name of the common good. If the settlement house worker Jane Addams personified the first strand of Progressivism, Theodore Roosevelt was the epitome of the second. By the time of Roosevelt’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, however, there were growing questions about whether experts really could be trusted to act on the common good—Wilson, who held a Ph.D. in political science, was notoriously high-handed in his foreign policy, for example—and whether they really knew as much as they thought they did. Though Progressives and their contemporary heirs have always thought of themselves of champions of The People, their skeptics have always regarded them, not without reason, as elitists insufferably blind to their own arrogance.
Whether or not they identify as latter day inheritors of the old Progressive tradition, most teachers in their day-to-day lives embrace the Progressivism of the localized Jane Addams variety. In contrast to administrators or politicians who want to impose their ideas for reform from the top down, they see themselves working with the facts on the ground: particular children responding to specific circumstances that may or may not correspond to a reform template. To at least some extent, this is a matter of self-interest: workers in many occupations tend to insist on the necessity of discretion in performing their jobs well. But teachers aren’t the only ones who make this case for their roles in the classroom; a long tradition of reformers, some of them in positions of administrative authority, have embraced the principle of teacher autonomy, even if this has always been a minority view in policymaking circles.
The third and most decisive way in which teachers tend to be progressive is what might be termed temperamental. In a literal sense, to be a progressive is to believe in progress, and anyone who’s in the business of educating children that does not believe in progress is probably in the wrong line of work. In this realm, too, the word has multiple meanings.
The most fundamental, of course, is at the level of the individual child. Teachers must act as if—and at least try to believe that—every student is capable of improving. This uniform principle gets affirmed in highly variable ways. A good teacher will assess where a student is and identify an attainable goal, and in a good teacher’s assessment of student work, the distance that student has traveled will matter at least as much as the objective quality of the work. The essence of fairness in this context means taking differences into account, of honoring the struggle more than the effortlessly achieved excellence.  This is an admittedly tricky matter, inherently subjective in nature. But it’s a standard worth pursuing. The fact of the matter is that virtually all students do make progress, variously understood, over the course of their academic careers. The school or instructional climate will never entirely account for it, though such factors (among them a child’s teacher) really can matter.
This progressive principle also applies to the craft of teaching itself. As anyone who’s done it for any length of time will agree, you get better at as you go along. Improvement can take the form of formal professional development, acquiring more knowledge from casual reading, or simply mastering a curriculum by repeatedly teaching it. There is certainly something to be said for the vitality of a new teacher, whose receptiveness to experience and willingness to shoulder often onerous demands (like teaching unfamiliar material) should not be underestimated as a source of institutional vitality. And there’s no question that that dead wood—which is to say teachers who have given up trying to grow—is a problem at virtually every school. But the seasoned veteran teacher is an asset any successful school will have in abundance.
The most profound way in which teachers are temperamentally progressive is generational: they believe in the future, a faith grounded in their engagement with the children who will take their place as adults. Strictly speaking, a desire and ability to work with young people doesn’t necessarily mean you think the future will be better than the past. (I don’t, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.) But unless you’re animated by some sense of hope about tomorrow, teaching becomes an exercise in grim fatalism, no doubt a contributing factor in dead wood syndrome.
Perhaps more than teachers elsewhere, American teachers have a particular attachment to seeing their work as part of a larger drama in the progress of U.S. society. For much of the nineteenth century, the dominant strain of historical interpretation in Great Britain and the United States was the so-called Whig school, which emphasized the degree to which history was a story of progress—moral no less than scientific—embodied in the White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant politicians who emphasized the importance of liberty (notably the liberty of American colonists in their revolutionary struggle for independence, whose supporters in England were known as Whigs).  The Whig interpretation of history fell out of favor around the time of the First World War—events in the first half of the twentieth century discredited confident assumptions of progress—and are regarded as racist today. But the notion that American life has been one of gradual improvement remains an article of faith that continues to animate everyday life inside as well as outside of classrooms.
You can see this progressive sensibility in just about any U.S. history textbook. If the Whig school cast its notion of progress in terms of white supremacy, these books instead depict a slow, irregular, but unmistakable march toward pluralistic egalitarianism. Particularly in the early going, these books have a demographic emphasis. We’re introduced to groups of people of African, European, and Native American origin, and the divisions and interplay between them.  However subjugated they are at the hands of imperial Europeans, those shut out of power manage to maintain their dignity and their hope in the face of considerable adversity. Though they experience tragedy, even catastrophe, they manage collectively to live another day. They’ll have their postcolonial moment, just like the United States has. History is destiny—of a hopeful kind. It’s what we think students need.
But—and this was the point of that opening anecdote—this progressive version of U.S. history is not something I tell them. This is something they tell me. It’s a logic they’ve absorbed into their bones long before they reach me. I’ve done this “all men are created equal” exercise a bunch of times, and it always goes pretty much the same way. I’ll usually get a student or two who says it really is nonsense. But inevitably one or two students will come forward and say that such a judgment is too harsh. I press them to explain, they may or may not flail in their attempt to do so, and a classmate or two (or three) will jump in. The gist of their riposte will be, in effect, that the Declaration of Independence was a kind of first draft of progressive history. First the white men were created equal. Then we remembered the ladies. Then the slaves got freed. And so on through gay marriage. That’s our history. It may short on facts. But it’s long on vision—which, let’s face it, is the most you can really hope for in a history course.
My problem is I’m not sure I really believe it. Yes: it is possible, desirable—right—to think of events like the ending of slavery, suffrage for women, the egalitarian achievements of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights Movement(s) as constituting an upward moral as well as material trajectory in American history. But if we stipulate that—and we put aside social hydraulics that seem to suggest gains for some people always seems to mean losses for others (e.g. the decline of economic equality that has accompanied racial equality in the last four decades)—progress is not a permanent state. Republics and empires come and go: that seems to be the iron law of history. The arc of history is long, but it is an arc: what goes up must come down.
Unfortunately, this is not something I’m experiencing as an abstract proposition. Virtually every sentient American in the early 21st century is uncomfortably aware of a discourse of decline in our national life, particularly in the economic and political realm. Though (shockingly for anyone over 30), events like 9/11, the Iraq War and the financial crisis of 2008 are distant events for today’s students, all have grown up in homes where recent history casts long shadows. For some students, they loom large in their overall perception of American history; for others they don’t, either because they haven’t fully absorbed their impact or because they imagine them as developments that are not really part of the historical record. Mostly, I think, reconciling recent events with their progressive vision of history is a matter of living with cognitive dissonance in the form of cultural lag that’s quite common to people in all times and places.
I don’t directly challenge the historical progressivism of my students, other than to note at some point in the school year that visions of history come in many shapes: circles, spirals, straight lines, and inclines (I usually draw them for the visual learners).  I don’t particularly want to evangelize my fatalism, partially because my instinctive skepticism makes me question my own certitude—events rarely happen in the way or at the pace we predict. But even if I did have certainty, I wouldn’t push it on them, because I can’t see how it would do them any good. I don’t want to puncture their confidence. Instead, I hope to sharpen their understanding—here’s where the facts and information come in, because they can help a good student get a particular version of the story straight—and send them on their way. In this regard, I really am a progressive educator in that first pedagogical way I talked about, the heir of a movement that emphasizes the plasticity of knowledge and the need for children to construct their own working models about the way the world works, but to do so in a social context where they are interacting with others.
And yet—and this is something I struggled with as a form of cognitive dissonance in my own life—I am not a progressive in the broadest, most historical, sense of the term. There are days when I feel like I’m leading lambs to the slaughter, when I am fostering habits of thoughts and behavior that will be singularly unhelpful in a coming world that will not be like the one in which we are living. Sometimes I imagine that future world as one of chaos; other times it’s one of stifling autocratic order. Either way, I imagine former students bitterly recalling the irrelevance, or worse, of what they learned in school.
So what keeps me going? My salvation is my ignorance: I don’t know, I can’t know, what will happen in the future. Call me an existentialist progressive: I labor in the faith—in the end, that’s all it is—that something I do, something I say, something I ask my students to read, will have some utility in their later lives. Some sliver that will be transubstantiated into an act of leadership—or, more simply, some act of decency—that will bring good into the lives of that student and the broader community in which that student lives. That’s not much to count on, I know. But sometimes it’s the counting that’s the problem.