One of the things I love about my blogmate L.D. is how deeply–and publicly–she reflects upon her place in the history discipline. Her most recent excellent post, The Reluctant Historian, where she discusses the necessity of approaching her subjects with “judicious sympathy,” is a case in point. Although I also enjoy reading scholarship written by the injudiciously unsympathetic–and although I agree with Corey Robin who wrote in the comments section that “contempt can actually press a writer, even inspire a writer, to see things in a subject that others have not seen”–I have found that it is to the benefit of my own scholarship when I am judiciously sympathetic to my subjects.
But teaching is another matter entirely. Also in the comments section, L.D. writes: “It’s not my job to change their understanding about life in general, or politics, or religion, or whatever.” Is such political objectivity, or neutrality, or whatever you want to call it, really the best approach to teaching?
Perhaps I’m an outlier, but two of the three teachers who had the most profound impact on my life–those responsible, really, for me becoming a historian–were openly ideological and honest with their students about their political commitments. The first, my high school English teacher, was an Ayn Rand objectivist who assigned Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and treated both books as the Truth. She literally got angry with students who disagreed, not in a mean way, but in a way that demonstrated she was honestly dismayed anybody would disagree with Rand. She was disappointed in her students who could not see Truth revealed in Rand’s works. It was a weird classroom, but I loved it. My objectivist English teacher never convinced me to like Rand or become a libertarian, quite the opposite, but she did teach me that ideas are really important. That ideas matter, a lot. This has stayed with me.
The second honest ideologue teacher who had a profound impact on me was my undergraduate college history professor, a grumpy, avowed Debs-style socialist from Oklahoma who used to play Woody Guthrie songs in class. The persona this professor forged in the imagination of his students was larger than life, and a huge part of this larger than life-ness was his political identity. Admittedly, I was an easy target since I didn’t need to be convinced of the merits of socialism, but this teacher had a huge following on campus, and not all of his acolytes were leftists. Teaching is often at its most joyful when trying to convince students of the merits of a deeply felt belief, whether political or aesthetic or whatever. And conversely, learning is often most meaningful in such a situation. This I learned from that ideological professor.
My third most influential teacher was in graduate school. This particular professor didn’t necessarily wear his politics on his sleeve in the classroom. He once told me he didn’t care if his students were communists or monarchists as long as they didn’t say stupid things. And he was honest about this, not just paying lip service to wanting ideological diversity in our student population, as most of us tend to do. Yet despite his lack of political commitment in the classroom, he regularly made political statements that some students found offensive, or at least counterintuitive. This was part of his pedagogical method. Part of his charm. And it was quite effective. It disrupted the copacetic bubble that governs most of our classrooms–the copacetic bubble where learning goes to die.
I teach students who want to be teachers. They often come to my classroom convinced they need to go to extreme lengths to avoid revealing their political selves to their future students. They are conditioned to be neutral by a college of education that inculcates professionalism and that seems to believe political ideology is anti-professional. In an educational culture that values testing and so-called accountability above all else, this might be the right pedagogical approach. But it is exactly wrong if we want students to be inspired learners.