Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Walt Whitman’s Challenge to Teachers

By Eric Sundberg — December 06, 2014 | Corrected: December 17, 2014 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the location of South Huntington. The town is located in New York.

Walt Whitman High School is set in a woodsy South Huntington, N.Y., neighborhood, about one mile from Whitman’s birthplace. I still have a copy of Leaves of Grass that I neglected to return to the Whitman library before I graduated in 1980. I’m not proud of my theft but I treasure the book. None of my teachers assigned any of it but I spent a lot of time picking through it on my own in a “study hall” during the spring of my senior year. I’ve dipped into it often in subsequent years. It’s musty, falling apart and held together with packing tape, but it still boots up every time I open it. The book, not just the content of the book, but the book, serves as a mystic connection among different stages of my life, my professional choices, people who have mentored or inspired me—and Walt.

The poem to which I have most returned is “As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shore.” It’s a nostalgic poem for a nation that had lost its muse. Whitman revised it after the Civil War and speaks of the need for poets and teachers to seek and study the essential stuff and source material of America in order to find the inspiration needed to heal and serve her. It contains a tough challenge that intimidated me as a young social studies teacher:

Are you he who would assume a place to teach or be a poet here in the States?
The place is august, the terms obdurate.
Who would assume to teach here may well prepare himself body and mind,
He may well survey, ponder, arm, fortify, harden, make lithe himself,
He shall surely be question’d beforehand by me with many and stern questions.
Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?

BRIC ARCHIVE

Who was I indeed! My first social studies department was packed with bright and seasoned New York City teachers. They argued a lot in delicious debates that had been going on since the 1960s. Probably longer. My first chairman (they used that term then) was a veteran of the Great Depression and of horrific amphibious landings in the South Pacific. He was a graduate of Columbia University and the author of an economics textbook. He knew stuff, seemingly everything. The above Whitman passage would, years later, be quoted in his eulogy. When they hired me I was 23 and, like many new teachers, figuring it out as I went along. Surely, Whitman demanded more than I had in me at the time:

Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?
Have you learn’d the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography, pride, freedom,
friendship of the land? its substratums and objects?
Have you consider’d the organic compact of the first day of the first year of
Independence, sign’d by the Commissioners, ratified by the States, and read by
Washington at the head of the army?
Have you possess’d yourself of the Federal Constitution?
Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems behind them, and assumed the
poems and processes of Democracy?

Though I had degrees in history and politics it would take years of teaching, of working with more experienced colleagues, of graduate school and of just living an adult life before I could claim to understand the ongoing conversations about how we should rule ourselves or about what held America together. It would be years before I developed real skill in bringing teenagers into those conversations. But though I was not aware of it at first, Whitman also offered sensible advice for those on the path to becoming good teachers:

Are you faithful to things? do you teach what the land and sea, the bodies of men,
womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers, teach?
Have you sped through fleeting customs, popularities?
Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls, fierce contentions? are
you very strong? are you really of the whole People?
Are you not of some coterie? some school or mere religion?

The past thirty 30 have presented many educational customs and whirls as well as imposing and fierce contentions, and coteries that seem to demand one’s “buy in.” Most of these are well-intended, based on at least partial truths, and are even useful. Some demand scrutiny and wariness. I’m fortunate to have come of age at a time and in places that reinforced what I see as two essential objectives for young teachers:

1. Know well your students and the content of the subjects you teach, and
2. Take a skeptical (not cynical!) stance against ideologies, schools-of-thought, technologies, and pedagogies.

The ASCD bookstore sends me five slim volumes a year and I usually read them. I have a shelf of books about multiple intelligences, teaching with tablets, nurturing “grit,” and teaching 21st-century skills. Some of these books definitely help me operationalize the current regulations and “standards” that frame my professional responsibilities. But I can’t think of any that would be worth stealing, let alone keeping for 35 years.

Most of our educational traditions have something to offer, even if they include extremes against which we must be on guard. The latest batch of enthusiasms can all be placed within the context of an old conversation about what and how to teach. Though we need not reject them out of hand, we must at least question the thinking of our current gurus and of the most influential among those who would presume to shape the way we teach here in the States. Indeed, it is our duty to ask how well they advance the chief end of education—at least public education, which is to prepare our youth to take on the responsibilities of citizenship. Everything else is secondary.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Efforts to Toughen Teacher Evaluations Show No Positive Impact on Students
After a decade of expensive evaluation reforms, new research shows no positive effect on student test scores or educational attainment.
10 min read
Man and woman evaluating and rating profiles by giving them stars.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Teachers Who Refuse to Comply With Vaccine Mandates Won't Face Consequences in Many Places
Some districts and states aren't even keeping track of how many teachers are vaccinated.
8 min read
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25, 2021. On Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied an emergency appeal from a group of teachers to block New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public school teachers and other staff from going into effect.
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Teaching Profession What New Teachers Need
Ideas from the real world on making teachers' first years less overwhelming and more fulfilling.
5 min read
Illustration of a classroom diorama sitting on a student desk.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Teaching Profession Opinion This Year Almost Drove Me Out of Teaching. The Right Leader Made Me Stay
After seven years teaching and one class away from becoming an education specialist, I have seen the highs and lows of education leadership.
Samantha Richardson
4 min read
Illustration of woman sitting on a mountain top looking into the distant landscape.
iStock/Getty