The Invisible Storyteller

A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and the best way to make sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting that the teller just … disappears. When I was in the business of helping students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the classroom—not read them from a book, but get out and tell them, face to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous until they tried it. They thought that under the pressure of all those wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But the brave ones tried it, and they always came back next week and reported with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked much more effectively as a result.

—Philip Pullman, “Magic Carpets: The Writer’s Responsibilities,” Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group Conference, Leeds, Sept. 2002; in Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, ed. Simon Mason (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), 9-10. Ellipsis in original.

The False Choices of Pedagogy Critics

Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other.

—Robert B. Bain, “‘They Thought the World Was Flat?’,” in M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2005), 180

“Remember the Roots of Our Discipline”

William Cronon’s presidential address, delivered on Jan. 4, 2013, in New Orleans.

In a distracted world …, and at a moment when there seems to be widespread public doubt about whether to continue supporting the study of the past as this organization has traditionally understood that activity, what is the future of history? There are many answers to this question, of course, and it is the job of the American Historical Association—and all of us—to offer those answers as effectively as we can to defend in public the continuing importance of history both in the United States and in the wider world. But for me, there is one answer that is arguably the most basic of all, and that is, simply: storytelling. We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us. Although the shape and form of our stories will surely change to meet the expectations of this digital age, the human need for storytelling is not likely ever to go away. It is far too basic to the way people make sense of their lives—and among the most important stories they tell are those that seek to understand the past. …

[T]he undergraduate classroom, far more than the graduate seminar, is where we take the results of our monographic research and place them in a much larger interpretive frame where we can show our students—and, by extension, our non-professional readers and ourselves—the larger meanings of our work. Original research is of course indispensable and lies at the cutting edge of disciplinary growth and transformation. But no one else will ever know this if we fail to come back from the cutting edge to integrate what we have learned into the older and more familiar stories that non-historians already think they know and care about. This is where we join other historical storytellers—journalists, novelists, dramatists, and filmmakers, as well as our academic colleagues in all the other historical disciplines—to keep asking what the past means and why ordinary people should care about it.

—William Cronon, “Storytelling” (presidential address to the American Historical Association), New Orleans, 2013

U.S. Adults Want Teachers Vaccinated

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in mid-February, adults in the United States have grown more concerned (since July 2020) about the effects of K-12 school closures on student academic progress. They have grown less concerned about the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spreading among students or teachers.

The risk of losing academic ground is now the leading factor cited by American adults as a determinant of whether schools should return to in-person instruction—ahead of students’ emotional wellbeing as well as pandemic transmission risks.

However, almost three in five American adults still say that K-12 school buildings should not reopen for in-person instruction until teachers have the chance to get vaccinated.

That becomes an overwhelming consensus among Black, Hispanic, Asian, and lower-income adults, as well as among Democrats, all of whom say, at least two-to-one and as much as four-to-one, that teachers should be vaccinated before K-12 schools return to in-person instruction.

In other words, statistically, the most vulnerable Americans are also the ones who most want teachers vaccinated before K-12 school buildings reopen.

You can find the news release about the report, along with links to the full data, at the Pew Research Center’s website.

A Century of PPE (the Other One)

I missed this article when it appeared in 2017, but I’ve just caught up with it thanks to the Guardian’s excellent Audio Long Read podcast.

Last year marked the centenary of PPE—not personal protective equipment, but the Oxford undergraduate concentration in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. As the headline of Andy Beckett’s story puts it, this is the “degree that runs Britain,” the university education of the UK’s political establishment.

Oxford PPE is more than a factory for politicians and the people who judge them for a living. It also gives many of these public figures a shared outlook: confident, internationalist, intellectually flexible, and above all sure that small groups of supposedly well-educated, rational people, such as themselves, can and should improve Britain and the wider world.

In Beckett’s telling, PPE’s history embodies the paradox or tragedy of western social democracy since the early twentieth century: What began in egalitarianism and emergency reform, in the wake of World War I and its attendant revolutions, became the province of a complacent rationalist-technocratic elite.

From the start, for some ambitious students, Oxford PPE became a base for political adventures as much as a degree. Hugh Gaitskell arrived at the university in 1924, a public schoolboy with no strong ideological views. There he fell under the spell of GDH Cole, an intense young economics tutor and socialist – the first of many such PPE dons – who was ‘talked about’, Gaitskell wrote excitedly later, ‘as a possible leader of a British revolution’. …

Yet during the postwar years, PPE gradually lost its radicalism. … By the late 1960s, despite the decade’s global explosion of protest politics, PPE was still focused on more conventional, sometimes insular topics. ‘The economics was apolitical,’ [Hilary] Wainwright remembers, ‘questions of inequality were not addressed. In politics, the endless tutorials seemed so unrelated to the crises that were going on. PPE had become a technical course in how to govern.’

Today, of course, PPE is the quintessential training for an elite that many observers consider moribund and insular in an age of global reactionary populism, hyperconcentrated capital, and institutional failure.

It seems to me that Andy Beckett’s essay offers a number of interesting points for American educators today to reflect upon. Many of us pride ourselves on educating “future leaders,” or something similar, and offer an expensive education to a relatively small section of U.S. society while also espousing egalitarian values. The history of PPE suggests what may come of such a paradox, for better or for worse.

The essay is especially interesting when we consider the nature of PPE as a course of undergraduate study:

‘PPE thrives,’ says [David] Willetts, a former education minister who is writing a book about universities, ‘because a problem of English education is too much specialisation too soon, whereas PPE is much closer to the prestigious degrees for generalists available in the United States.’

You can read the full story here, or you can listen to a narrator reading it—along with a new audio introduction by the author, who wryly observes that Oxford’s PPE might be relevant to Britain’s failures with respect to medical PPE during the current pandemic.

The Political Consciousness of the Teachers Who Made Black History Month

The creation of Negro History Week did not occur in a vacuum. It reflected a continuum of consciousness among Black educators, channeling an intellectual and political tradition long practiced in the private spaces of their classrooms. This class of teachers placed the needs of their students above protocols imposed by white school leaders. …

[T]hese educators insisted on the importance of providing students with cultural armor to repudiate the racial myths reflected in the nation’s laws, social policies, and American curriculum.

—Jarvis R. Givens, “The Important Political History of Black History Month”

“There Was a Shining Moment”

A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle [I and others have been waging in America]. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. …

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, ‘What about Vietnam?’ They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. …

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. …

If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967

For context, see Christina Knight, “Martin Luther King’s Most Controversial Speech.” A recording of the address, which was given at Riverside Church in New York, may be heard here:

National Greatness Is a Moving Target

It is this appreciation for change and multiple perspectives that makes the U.S. history classroom a poor place to inculcate or beat back patriotism. ‘How great are we?’ is simply not the question history seeks to answer. ‘How did we get here?’ is closer to the mark.

The point of history is not to list all the good things or bad things that have happened, nor to strike some desired balance between them. It’s to understand origins, persistence and change. We teach it because we hope that knowing how slavery ended or the Second World War began will equip students to think intelligently about the present. History helps them to see why and by whom their world was built. It shows them how visions have had consequences — sometimes far-reaching, sometimes unintended. It gives them the intellectual tools to act on their society: a complex, dynamic place that is theirs to change or conserve.

The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.

Daniel Immerwahr, “History Isn’t Just for Patriots,” Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2020

Human Seriousness

Cover of 'Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,' by Zena Hitz

Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.

It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.

—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197