Copyright © 1997, Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 7 Jan 1997 19:19:11 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thought: "Why do I have to take ...."

These are hectic times at VSU. It is the beginning of the Quarter. Courseless students are aimless wandering the halls, standing outside faculty offices, crowding departmental offices, hat in hand, heads drooped, palms extended, begging, "A course. A course. Kind sir could you give this poor wretched soul a course?" "A class for the needy." I was expecting any minute for unkept, bleary-eyed students to hold up make-shift signs reading: "Will work for a schedule", "Have a family, need a course." It's awonder that we don't have students standing on corners, playing musical instruments or vocalizing, open music cases lying before them, with signs: "Classless, veteran, family, any course will be appreciated."
So, there I was this afternoon, preparing for a keynote address I am to deliver next week, when I hear this meek voice. "Dr. Schmier, could you help me?"
I turned and asked, "What can I do for you?"
"I'm desperate for a course. Is there room in any of your classes?" a student pleadingly asked.
I sympathetically looked over my class rolls and told him that my classed were filled, that I may be able to squeeze him in if someone else didn't show up, but that I couldn't guarantee him a seat until tomorrow. Then, his patience snapped. "I don't know why I have to take a dumb course like history," he muttered loud enough for me to hear. "Stupid core. I'm pre-med. It's no good in my major. I'd rather take courses in science that I can do something with than history and in political science and psychology and sociology and all that other useless junk. None of this will help me get into med school or when I'm in med school." He looked up, as forcefully asked as if was verbally grabbing me at the collar, " Tell me, how is history going to help me diagnose some patient's sickness or cure him? I mean, be real. Knowing something about some dead people and a few dates isn't gong to make me a better doctor or help me write a precription. When I was sick and went to the doctor, he never said a thing about the Civil War. I'll never use it. Tell me! Some of my friends are worse off. All they can get are dumb courses in art or philosophy and 'stuff' like that. And they're business majors. It's a stupid waste!"
In reply, I merely asked, "What does your adviser say."
"He agrees. He thinks it's stupid for me to waste my time and money when I can take important courses, but he told me that he couldn't to anything about it and I'll just have to suffer until I can get to the good stuff. So I guess I'm stuck and if I'm forced to take course that won't do me any good, I'd just as soon take it with you. At least, my friends told me you weren't boring. But, I still think it sucks!"
I got him into my class.
You know, in this age, when so many would have higher education offer little more than sports and white-collar vocational education, when so many both inside and outside the academy condemn what is called the liberal arts--or any course outside a student's major department for that matter--as "stuff" and "junk" that is supposedly "dumb" and "useless" in getting trained for and carrying out a job, this ill-advised student's attitude isn't unique. But, as I recently told a number of colleagues I think I have an answer for both for him and his myopic adviser.
Now, I'm not going to speak for the other disciplines. I'll just speak up for my own. First, I am committed to Plato's assertion that I as a teacher have a social obligation to teach beyond the confines of the classroom and the subject matter and especially the major so that the students will be improved human beings; so that they can take responsible positions not just in a profession or business, but in their personal and social roles as well. It's impossible for me to separate thinking about a course from thinking beyond the course, to separate thinking about what kind of professionals the students will be from thinking about what kind of people they will be at the end of the day and the term. I want to make a difference. I want my students to feel changed after 10 weeks. I don't want to just filled them with more information.
Everything and everyway I teach is designed to connect history with the lives of the students, to connect the students with themselves and each other. I feel that it is my responsibility to make what I and the students do in the classroom important in their lives. Forming them into triads and using such methods as role playing, abstract drawing, skit writing and presentation, short-story writing, scavenger hunts, chain essay writing, I stand aside and let the students discover for themselves, let them see that they can discover, let the most mundane fact come alive with the force of personal discovery, let them chatter amongst themselves, let them learn how to cooperate and support and encourage and respect each other, let them learn to listen to and consider other points of view; let them utilize a variety of modes of expression; let them learn adaptability and flexibility; let them present imaginative creations, ask them to share the excitement of revelations.
Second, I can think of no one so ill prepared as a professional, citizen, person as someone trained only in a single discipline only by those in that discipline. I say this because the more I teach the more I oppose unnatural separateness and compartmentalization of people, subjects, and the silly conflicting metaphors of the "ivory tower" and "real world"; and the more I understand the ecology or "wholeness" of knowledge, nature, and people: of spirit, emotion, mind and body within each person; of diverse individuals and peoples; of the disciplines into which we have artificially divided existence; of people and nature. The more I teach, the more I feel I have to familiarize students with the forces that have shaped and continue to shaped their lives as well as those of others of different experiences, backgrounds, races, genders, national heritages, cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. At the same time, the more I feel I can't let them lose sight of the fact that the consequences of those past events and forces defy time and are very real and personal.
In a way I'm lucky. Some may say that it is easier for me to do that as an accomplished historian than it may be, say, for a mathematician. As a sidebar, I don't think that it true, not when I think about Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, the non-scientific forces that acted upon them, how they and what they did reflected those forces, and how they influenced those forces. Back to history. History contains a natural, organic wholeness as the sum story of what people hope and dream and do--although you wouldn't know it the way it's study has become jargonized as some of us historians deperately try to demonstrate that we are objective social scientists using scientific method; how it has become politicized, culturize, divided, subdivided and fragmented into more narrow and separated concentrations. My discipline is somewhat all encompassing; it includes and is involved in all the sciences, all the arts, literature, religion, philosophy, technology, education, economic, business, culture, every human twitch. And, if I perform my task and carry on my mission as a teacher, as I see it, I can help students understand that their personal troubles and experiences and views are social issues that have meaning for a lot of other people--and vica versa. At the same time, I can help them understand contemporary issues, not to mention their personal issues, with the perspectives of the past.
You know, I have to admit that there are times I am uncomfortable with, almost am enveloped with as sense of annoyance and irresponsibility about, teaching history. How often am I, as an historian, treated as academia's second-son, a passing thought, low on the order of priority--and pay-scale. I mean here are these students coming to campus to prepare themselves to secure their niche beyond the classroom and campus in society's megaeconomy. They come to our campuses whose faculty and administrators increasingly tout their institution as white-collar vo-tech institutions, looking for their place in society's economic scheme of things; looking myopically for a better job, more money, higher position in society; they come to the campus screaming, "I hate history", thinking--and often being told--that history is a boring, useless bunch of facts--names of dead people, battles, treaties, places--they had to memorize for a short- answer test often prepared by an athletic coach for whom the school administration had to find a classroom. They don't see why they have to take a course that is not "needed for my major"; no one tells them why they, as business or science majors, with the eyes to the future, have to waste their time studying about the past that's "done and gone" and that no one has told them has any bearing on understanding the real, contemporary world. Even our majors or those thinking of becoming history majors ask the classical, cyclical question, "What can I do with a degree in history besides teach history?"
So, here I am, concentrating on introducing Bismarck or Peter the Great or even the pilgrims to students who have been bored to tears in boring classes, who have had history classes that were as exciting as walking through a cemetery in the winter, that have had and have classes that reduced these once vibrant human beings to "cohorts", cold statistics and charts, inanimate poster images, to lifeless names, meaningless wars and battles, unimportant dates, archaic treaties, royal genealogical lists, distant and detached events, believing that the subject belongs more in a dusty attic with all the other relics of the dead than in a living room among the living.
At times, I feel the need to justify myself to them in non-historical terms. I tell them that I have them work in triads because they will need to start learning communication skills, people skills and how to work with others and in teams in whatever professional or corporate setting they may find themselves; I explain that I make sure that the triads are gender and racially mixed because they will meet and work with diverse people; I discuss the various non-lecture, collaborative projects and exercises in terms of how they have to learn to become their own learners, how to learn how to pick up the salient points in a document or statement on their own, how to learn what makes people tick from a few seemingly disconnected words or actions, how to believe in their abilities and capacities, how to have vision, how to learn to put their trust in what they do whether as students, business people, professionals, parents, voters.
As it turns out, my best history classes are alwasys life classes. It's my task to get students to see and feel for themselves that history is not a sedentary subject about who signed what treaty or who shot whom or who married whom or who invented what. I struggle to get students to understand for themselves that history is about real people who once were, with hopes and dreams and fears and hang-ups just like them; to conjure up ways for the students to bring a Socrates, an Otto von Bismarck or a Sojourner Truth or a Thomas Jefferson or a Margaret Sanger or a factory worker or even an Adolf Hitler into my class alive, fleshed out, blood flowing through their veins and arteries, air rushing in and out of their lungs; to figure how to get the students to walk around each of them, see them, touch them, hear them, talk with them; to see them joke, laugh, itch, cringe, doubt, scratch, make love, be human. I find methods and techniques to let them make meaningful, animate adventures out of the subject, by breathing life into the historical figures and showing that they were just as human and fallible as the students and faced life's challenges just like them. I back off and let the students understand that they are a product of thoughts, actions and decisions made by those who came before them--a top layer of a piece of layered plywood. I let the students see that ideas are not just ideas; they're forces that change people and societies and the world. And I work hard to show them, for them to see for themselves, that each of them has no less the power to change themselves, other people, their society, other societies, and the world.
This doesn't trivialize or dismiss history as subject matter. Just the opposite. Every time I pull it off, I find that the students begin to like studying history and acquire a greater awareness of the role the past plays in their present lives, and learn a lot of history that sticks far more than if they were merely sitting around listening to someone talk and tell, and studying merely to pass a test. Every time I pull it off, far more students see the value and meaning in history and far fewer students ask "why do I have to take..." or "what can I do with this" or "what good is it" or "is this really important?"

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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