Teaching for Hope

George_Frederic_Watts_Hope_1886

I try to end every history course on a contemporary note. Either we bring a second-half survey right up to the present (or to things my students can remember well) or we finish on a long-ago topic that has strong contemporary resonance. The best history courses leave some unfinished business. They tell a long story whose outcome we don’t know. There’s power in that.

That power comes from anxiety—mine as much as theirs. “Authenticity” or self-revelation usually doesn’t play much of a role in my conception of pedagogy, but at the end of a course, I try to let my personal apprehensions show a little. We’re living together in a time of obvious instability and change, and I don’t know the future any more than my students do.

If I’ve done my job well, my students now have an enlarged sense of how very bad things can get. (One of the things that has changed since I started teaching a decade ago is that I no longer have to fight my students’ naïve optimism to do that. A lot of today’s undergraduates are scared.)

But as I tell my students, historians dwell in the tense space between two realizations. First, we spend our time documenting how evil humans can be to each other, and how vulnerable every society has been. At the same time, we spend our time documenting how people have responded to danger: often foolishly, often oppressively, but also creatively, charitably, humanely, heroically.

At our best, we don’t tell stories about bright sides and silver linings. We tell stories about defiance.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Courage consists not of lacking fear, but of acting in spite of your fear. It’s in that sense that I try to make sure that my parting thoughts (as well as many moments earlier in the semester) are a call to courage.

I want my students to understand that the next part of the past, the part we haven’t covered because it hasn’t happened yet, is up to them and all the people they know and all the people like them.

They are the material of the histories of the future. That’s what hope means.

_______________

Image: Detail from George Frederic Watts, Hope, second version, 1886. Tate Britain via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

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