I had two remarkable teachers in high school. One was an elderly lady (this means she must have been at least forty years old!) who taught English and thereby introduced me to Shakespeare. The other was an equally elderly man who taught government, and introduced me to the principles and practices of self-government. These two teachers made a profound impact on me. The reason why is simple: it was clear that they both loved and knew the subjects they taught.
I think this is the most important thing to keep in mind when reflecting on what the essence of a good teacher is. The most critical things are those two traits that my good high school teachers had. A teacher should both love and know the subject he teaches. No amount of psychology, sociology and methodology can replace steeping yourself in the subject and then introducing your students to it as if it were the most important subject in the world. And in the case of American history and government, it may well be.
Teaching American history is different than teaching engineering or chemistry. If we don’t teach engineering or chemistry well enough for a few generations, all that will happen is that we might become less comfortable than we would have if it were well taught, or develop some useful medicine less quickly. But if we are unable to teach our history, the standard maxims of a free society, the Constitutional structures instituted to protect our rights and freedoms, well then, we might no longer be able to prove to the world — which is our solemn duty to do — that men are capable of good government.
Also note that teaching American history is not exactly like teaching the history of Hungary or Germany. The teacher in Hungary wants his students to understand their past because, after all, it’s their past. But the American teacher wants to go beyond that. Indeed, American history itself demands that we go beyond that. We need to know — and I hope love — American things not only because they are ours, but because they are good. We have thought, from the beginning, that this new experiment in free politics — this new order for the ages — is a rare opportunity to prove to the world that ordinary human beings are capable of self-government. We have a duty to do this; the honor of the human race may be at stake.
I am reminded of this simple truth because we have run six one-week Ashbrook Teacher Institutes this summer, and I have spent the summer with over two-hundred high school teachers from around the country. These are good men and women who have come back to school — once again — to immerse themselves in the subjects they teach. Whether it’s a seminar on the Founding era, or on Lincoln and the Civil War, or the role of the Supreme Court in the Constitutional structure, they have had the opportunity to dig into the subject with vigor, led by great teachers (that is, professors) from not only Ashland, but from around the country.
Rather than steeping themselves in dry-as-dust textbooks written by committees, they look at the original documents, letters, and books of America’s greatest politicians, thinkers, and writers. They go back to the beginning of things, of trying to understand these political actors as they understood themselves, finding out what animated them, what they stood for, and what their disagreements were. It is because of the value of these seminars for teachers that the Ashbrook Center is working to establish a unique summer program that would lead to a Master of Arts in History and Government. The degree will be designed for teachers from around the country who are interested in working toward an M.A. in the field in which they teach.
This is a very stirring activity. Our country’s history is anything but boring. Transcendent principles are involved, and great statesmen are at the helm. Fascinating men and women are to be found in our chronicles, ones who think deeply and act well. Their stories are the lifeblood of our common heritage, they are interesting in themselves (is not the life of Washington or Lincoln more interesting than the life some dramatist could conjure?) and, inevitably, through studying their lives and works we end up being instructed in the principles of freedom and of human excellence.
The teachers who participate in our Institutes not only find this a re-invigorating experience, but they are reminded that to the extent they can continue to be real students of the subject, so they will become better teachers. My memorable high school teachers would have understood this. I thank them for reminding me. These summers are well spent.
Peter W. Schramm is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.