Teachers Have a Role as Keepers of the Meaning

A MiddleWeb Blog

I want to be clear about two things. First, I truly love teaching with all my heart and soul. Second, I have really dreaded the thought of going back to work at the end of the summer.

I work so hard when school is in session that summer is a welcome relief and chance to catch up on all the things I let go during the school year. So when August comes around, I find myself sort of dreading it. All this, despite the fact that I love my job and once I get started, I’m happy to be back.

Are you feeling this right about now? And if you’ve already returned to school, did you feel it before you returned? How do we avoid this?

Last year, I celebrated a milestone birthday. Half in jest, a friend sent me an article to read about growing old happily. This summer, after my milestone birthday plus one, I gave it a re-read. The article mentioned the work of the American psychiatrist, George E. Vaillant. Vaillant identifies several factors that contribute to living a happy life. Two are especially relevant to the work we do as teachers.

Investing ourselves in work that will outlive us

The first of those factors is generativity, a concept developed by the famous psychologist Erik Erikson. It involves looking out for the next generation by investing one’s self in work that will outlive the self. It can include serving as a guide or mentor to young adults.

According to Vaillant, masters of generativity triple their chances of enjoying their seventies. (While still quite a way from 70, I am now closer to 70 than I am to the age of my students!)

Clearly, teaching is all about investing ourselves in work that will outlive us. And while we have former students reach out to us and come visit, sometimes it takes awhile before students acknowledge the value of what we have taught them.

Teaching history’s lessons about truth and justice to tomorrow’s leaders

The second related concept leading to happiness is being a keeper of the meaning. This is a stage of adulthood that Vaillant added to Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.

George Vaillant at TEDx Amsterdam

Becoming a keeper of the meaning involves the teaching of the values of the past to future generations. The purpose is much broader than the stage of generativity, as it is less focused on teaching individuals and more focused on justice and wisdom.

Reading this struck a nerve with me. Never in my 19 years of teaching have I felt a stronger sense of urgency to the task of teaching history to the young.

The last few summers have emphasized the wisdom of Faulkner’s oft-quoted words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

August 2014 – the unrest in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown

June 2015 – the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston which led to the taking down of the Confederate flag in South Carolina

Summer 2016 – Brexit and the nomination of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

August 2017 – the rioting in Charlottesville, Virginia following the Unite the Right rally

Summer 2018 – the separation of migrant families to the U.S.

These stories are just a few that demonstrate so clearly the dangers of forgetting the past.

Timeless values to meet current threats

So while I mourn the passing of summer, I am also fired up. This past spring, my introduction to my unit on the Depression and the New Deal included a discussion of the two slides below. The second slide features books published in the first few months of 2018 and do not include a bevy of additional books published around the same time and since. They clearly suggest a common theme to this current moment.

This summer I have been reading excerpts from two of the above, Cass Sunstein’s Can It Happen Here? and Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. These books, along with the news, remind me why our job as history teachers is so important. We must be careful not to be preachy or partisan, but we must be the keepers of meaning. As the above authors suggest, the fate of our nation may be at stake.

If you need further convincing, consider what James Loewen has to say about the responsibility we have as history teachers in the age of “alternative facts.” In a new (2018) introduction to his groundbreaking 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, Loewen writes

[T]here is a reciprocal relationship between truth about the past and justice in the present. When we achieve justice in the present, remedying some past event or practice, then we can face it and talk about it more openly, precisely because we have made it right. It has become a success story. . . .

Conversely, a topic that is mystified or distorted in our history…usually signifies a continuing injustice in the present, like racism. Telling the truth about the past can help us make it right from here on.

So help turn that dread of the end of summer into a recognition of our calling. Our students need us. Remember why we do what we do, and why it is more important than ever. You are a keeper of the meaning.

Lauren S. Brown

Lauren S. Brown (@USHistoryIdeas) has taught U.S. history, sociology and world geography in public middle and high schools in the Midwest. She currently teaches 8th grade U.S. history in suburban Chicago. Lauren has also supervised pre-service social studies teachers and taught social studies methods courses. Her degrees include an M.A. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her blog U.S. History Ideas for Teachers is insightful and packed with resources.

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