Social Studies Opinion

Going on Vacation, in a Contrary Mood

By Dave Powell — July 24, 2015 4 min read

In some ways, this is the perfect time for an opinionated blogger like myself to head out on vacation. Of course, it’s summer—let’s just get that out of the way first. Teachers and professors like me get to take a little time off in the summer, precious though that time may be, and unwind a bit before the school year begins again in earnest. Summer is also a time to recharge the old batteries—figuratively, if not literally—and reconnect to the things that make teaching such a worthwhile profession. Without summer time, I can safely say I might have left teaching myself a long, long time ago.

But the need to unwind and recharge is especially intense when so many things are pulling us away from the positive experiences that drew us into teaching in the first place. I say “we” here not to presume that every teacher thinks or feels like I do, since I know that’s not the case, but to reiterate that there is a certain camaraderie that exists among professional educators, a sense of solidarity that is easy to lose sight of in the face of withering attacks on our profession, our professionalism, and the public that we serve. That’s an important point, too: teachers are public servants, even those who choose to teach in private settings, and the criticism we face is often conflated with criticism of other public servants and other public things. Some people, it seems, won’t be satisfied until we have returned to that state of nature political and moral philosophers use as a starting point for understanding the human condition. Only, it seems, when we’re all on our own again, defending ourselves against threats real and imagined, working against each other rather than with each other, will they be satisfied with the order of things.

No thanks. It’s increasingly difficult to keep from being cynical after looking at the news for even five minutes, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. Symbolic and real fights over the depths of racism; routine traffic stops that elevate into violent confrontations sometimes leading to deaths; politicians going out of their way to engage in fearmongering to undermine the meticulous diplomatic work of a duly elected president and his cabinet; a leading presidential candidate insulting an entire nation of people as rapists, then following up, for dessert, by questioning the patriotism of a former prisoner of war—the onslaught is endless. And this is to say nothing of the mass shootings that have become commonplace for us. High schools; college campuses; elementary schools; movie theaters; grocery stores; armed forces recruiting stations. Where hasn’t this happened? In spite of it all, we have to try to resist the urge to be consumed by what’s going on. In fact, I would argue that it’s the first job of an educator to see past the miseries of our lives as they’re unfolding now and look with hope toward what could be done to make them better. Acknowledge the problems, yes; analyze and explore and evaluate them. But look past them, too, for something better on the horizon.

As a former social studies and history teacher, and as someone who actively recruits and trains young people interested in becoming social studies teachers, I can’t help but read the news and wonder how educators could help address some of these problems. I’m not alone in this, of course: about 100% of all proposed education policies are designed to solve some social problem in one way or another. But I have to believe that the work done by conscientious teachers and teacher educators can address the shortcomings of public policy in ways that policymakers themselves can sometimes only dream about. As Congress gears up for a looming debate over reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this is, once again, drawn into sharp relief. Those legislators will do something to dramatically affect the everyday experiences of students and teachers in schools, even if they do nothing. But, ultimately, students and teachers hold as much power—if not more—in this process as they do. They can, anyway, if they want to.

As I head off for a much-needed vacation over the next two weeks, I’ll do so hoping that teachers who regularly read this column (and even those that don’t!) are finding time to do the same. I also hope that when they do, those teachers will spend time contemplating the important work we do as servants and educators of the public. Teaching students to read and write and do math is important not as an end unto itself, but as a means to one: our neighbors need to know how to do these things so they can understand and expose demagoguery, so they can tell the difference between showboaters and serious candidates for office, and so they can see, for themselves, how economic decision-making affects their lives. And this is only part of it. We should also be teaching people to see and feel and experience things from many perspectives, and to use these perspectives to develop a sense of empathy for the struggles of others. We have to show them these things, because if we don’t we can’t be certain that someone else will.

Not much of what passes for education policy these days brings us closer to that way of thinking. So I’m going south in more ways than one—in a contrary mood, to be sure, but eager to spend time with family and friends (many of them fellow teachers) who will challenge me and my thinking, get my mind off of things that I don’t want to think about, and make the world a better place again for awhile. I’ll come back contrary, too, but with even more to say than I’ve said already. You can count on that.

Here’s hoping all of you have a similar experience before school starts again. See you in a couple of weeks.

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