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
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
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,
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
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?"