Christmas is almost here. The seasonal decorations are up, brightening the winter gloom, and Christmas music can be heard in all the stores and radio stations. I am no longer Christian, having left the Church forever when I was nineteen but there are Christmas traditions for which I have a soft spot, one of which is watching Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Dickens was at his pedantic best with this tale, laying out his ethical system in no uncertain terms. The funny thing is that I have never thought of it as being exclusively Christian tale.
My favorite version is the black and white 1938 version with Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Crachit and Kathleen Lockhart, his real-life wife as Mrs. Crachit, and their daughter June making her screen debut. But my favorite character is the young Scrooge’s boss, Old Fezziwig. He is a businessman who teaches Scrooge his art but he also has boundaries: He declares that Christmas Eve is a time for celebration so he tells them to put away the ledgers and set the place up for a party. Much dancing and merriment ensues. Returning with the Ghost of Christmas Past, even the cold-hearted Scrooge is delighted to see him.
They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Scrooge cried in great excitement:
'Why, it's old Fezziwig. Bless his heart; it's Fezziwig alive again.'"
I love Fezziwig because he teaches a gentle lesson of proportion and balance. In Fezziwig’s world, work has its place but so does gaiety, dancing, and love. He created a joyous atmosphere in a place that without his influence would be dour and dull. He provided the one bright spot in the joyless life of young Ebenezer Scrooge.
Classrooms can be like that. In my classes we deal with some terrible stories of poverty, violence, dictatorships, and massacres. There is nothing remotely cheerful anywhere on the syllabus. Nor would I make light of the many sorrows we witness in the course. But there is a boundary between us and those stories, and what I want to do is to make the learning a joy; I want to undermine the disdain for history that many students start class with; and I want them to remember my classes with joy and enthusiasm.
I realize that I will not attain 100% success. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” No matter how hard you try, some students will simply dislike you. What can you do but shrug it off? What is harder is being fair to those who are openly disdainful, aggressive or rude. I always find myself bending over backwards to be fair to such students. It helps to remember that they don’t know you personally; all they know about you are the parts of yourself that you’ve chosen to share with them.
One of my happiest memories of college is of an elderly English professor named Father John Coleman. He taught poetry and composition. Whenever you said something that he found engaging, smart, or remotely interesting, he'd point at you and say, 'Take an "A"!' He didn't care much for grades, and I have a vague recollection that he gave us each an A in the class but that didn't matter; he must have had the best attendance in the university. I looked forward to it every day. His cheerful demeanor made the class a joy.
History is not like literature. Many students come in with a bad attitude about studying history: they don’t like it; they don’t like you; and, they hate every history teacher they’ve ever had. You can only unravel a limited part of that antagonism.
The problem of students’ dislike of history is usually laid at the feet of their high school teachers when the problem is actually systemic: High school teachers can only teach the school board-approved curriculum using the approved texts. Teachers have no choice. School boards are inherently conservative and rigid. No matter what progressive ideas may be taught in secondary-education teacher programs, the legions of teachers are constrained by the school-board’s narrowness of mind. Conservatism on school boards is the lowest common denominator: More school board members lean towards conservatism because they do not want to take chances with their precious children. I don’t say that flippantly or disrespectfully. Their children are their most treasured possessions (for lack of a better word) and they don’t want to take any chances on some new-fangled, unproven ideas.
I learned this is a very vivid way when I was the president of the California NOW Foundation, which was associated with California NOW (National Organization for Women). The Foundation had chosen to fund the first handbook of resources for gay and lesbian teenagers. It was authored by a teacher at Fairfax High School. Its publication in the late 1980s caused a huge hullabaloo and the Los Angeles School Board responded by holding hearings. I went to speak on behalf of my board in support of the publication. It made no difference that we were in what outsiders regard as one of the most liberal cities in the world; the “threat” brought the most conservative from surrounding counties to the school board meeting to shoot down the handbook. The fundamentalists organized in the churches and brought busloads of their congregants to oppose its publication. It was the kind of blow-up that greets same-sex marriage today. The teacher who wrote it, Virginia Uribe, was filling a very dire need: Gay and lesbian teenagers were isolated and often abused by their peers. Many committed suicide.
What struck me about the opposition was the extreme fear that they showed. They were terrified that we had published a “how-to” manual that show their children how to engage in homosexual sex and thus undermine traditional heterosexual relationships. No matter that it did nothing of the sort but ultimately, the idea that these at-risk teenagers could come to believe theirs was a normal human sexuality, so contrary to their traditional beliefs, was unsupportable to them. When their children are concerned, most people err on the side of conservatism.
The oft-mentioned liberalism of higher education results from an unspoken commitment to teaching the young to think for themselves. Primary and secondary educations do not have the same calling. There is no academic freedom in grade school or high school. Only college professors have protected speech, much to the aggravation of parents and other citizens who would prefer that their children are never exposed to Karl Marx or other controversial thinkers.
Thus, many students approach their university history professors with suspicion and wariness. It’s not only that they have had to learn by rote, boring names and dates, it is also that their earlier teachers have been charged with teaching them the canon, that is, the accepted, agreed-upon version of American history as approved by the school boards and carefully taught by their teachers. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! This is why our approach must be at once light and serious. We aim to teach critical thinking; most high school history classes offer traditional history presented in traditional ways. Instead of repeating the accepted version yet once again, (snore), we are teaching them to ask why, to question authority, and to try to understand the context of the events in the world and in our country.
Fezziwig ran what appeared to be a rather staid business but he was loved for the atmosphere he created. To persuade university students that what we are doing goes beyond their earlier studies, and to draw them into the joy of intellectual exercise, we must make the atmosphere in the classroom light, so they will come to enjoy the intellectual challenge of this work itself.