This Old Man, He Teaches History

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by Wight Martindale Jr. headlined “This Old Man, He Teaches History”:

I am 83, still functioning but past my prime. Most of the college professors and high-school teachers in my cohort have already been shuffled out of the classroom. I concede I shouldn’t be running for president or chairman of a board at my age. I’m terrible at understanding new trends and technologies. But history and literature—the events and works of the past—don’t change at all. All we can do is to try to understand why long-gone people did what they did and said what they said.

That’s where guys like me come in. Old people are good at looking back because our lives are made up almost entirely of the past. We think about it all the time. We know that our futures are likely to be brief. The Greeks called it paideia, the passing of traditions and customs to the next generation. Youth always rebels against age—the Olympians had to defeat the Titans—but Prometheus, a Titan, brought us fire.

Young people usually don’t think about the past. They should be running things today because tomorrow is their concern, not mine. Teaching history and literature, on the other hand, begins with perspective—something older people should be good at.

Here’s rule No. 1: Survey courses are the most important classes taught in high school and college. In English literature it’s “Beowulf” to Virginia Woolf—or maybe up to Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz. But nothing from the past 20 years. We simply haven’t had the time to sort all that out. John Donne doesn’t sound like Alexander Pope, who doesn’t sound like Percy Shelley, who doesn’t sound like Robert Browning, who doesn’t sound like T.S. Eliot. With a little time and guidance, kids can figure all this out. Charles Dickens doesn’t view the world the way Jane Austen does.

For American literature the same principle applies. A student who hasn’t read half a dozen poems by William Cullen Bryant doesn’t understand American literature. High schools offer almost none of this. The teachers, who may not be great readers themselves, cherry-pick current favorites. Teaching the survey course would benefit the faculty as well.

History survey courses are more important than “topic” courses, which litter college offerings today. It’s nice to study the rest of the world—Asia and Russia matter—but not at the expense of what is central to Western culture, which is extremely diverse on its own.

How one teaches history makes a difference. There are two ways to look at it, ex post and ex ante. The first is dominant today: Here you look at a historical event and immediately draw it into the present, that is, you examine what came next. Thus we look at Franklin D. Roosevelt to understand how the modern bureaucratic state evolved out of his administration. This often makes history little more than an introduction to current events.

The second way involves looking at the historical situation, what came before, and trying to understand why people acted as they did in the moment. How did Herbert Hoover’s presidency affect the Roosevelt administration? What forces shaped FDR’s thinking as the U.S. got pulled into World War II? We look at the past and ask ourselves, “What choices did they make?” We shouldn’t judge the past by the standards of today.

Rule No. 2: The old can’t teach the young using outdated methods. We can’t bury kids with homework or bore them with long lectures. Kids today read less than we did and their attention spans are shorter. The Harkness Method, developed at Phillips Exeter Academy, is an oval-table discussion format that encourages a class to explore an idea as a group. It works well for English, history, languages and math. It’s popular in private schools and is spreading to some large public schools.

Teaching is hard. Good teachers still have to know how to make contact with students and recognize a change in the climate of a classroom. But we have a special, valuable perspective. Real history is what older people live with. We should welcome the opportunity to share it.

Wight Martindale Jr. has taught at Lehigh, Temple and Villanova universities.

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