The Poet at Sunrise

The poet emerges at sunrise:
alone, as always, and without plan;
when else can he perceive the way
the lark’s sudden departure sends
a crown of halos rippling toward the bank?
His words cast common objects
in an unfamiliar light,
finding sacredness in the profane
and humor even in darkness.
“Yes,” we say,
“it is just like that, isn’t it?
We humans are a funny lot,
and much the same.”

Daylight belongs to the merchants,
the farmers, the tradesmen:
practical men with calloused hands,
theirs is not a life of glamour, but
they keep the world humming along
in good time and good taste
(that is, until the politicians –
who rush forward in late afternoon –
insist to show them all a better way);
busy, busy, is the day –
too busy for an unhurried thought
or unsuspected flash of genius,
too bright its rays.

The philosopher emerges at twilight
to remind the world what it has lost.
“Now we long for the return
of what we once despised…”
His warning is spoken too late, but
he writes the epitaph of the epoch,
understanding in hindsight
what was happening all along.
“We thought ourselves too clever,
building castles out of sand…
Ah! Alack! And what remains?”

The artist appears in the moonlight,
untroubled by the fall of empires;
somehow he knows humanity will survive
this latest apocalypse.
The passing era has left at his disposal
more than enough fragments:
shards of marble and of clay
to be sifted through and studied
till he can fashion a new way:
“Bold! Revolutionary! Daring!” they exclaim,
as skepticism fades to praise.

The poet emerges at sunrise…

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How Much Can We Really Learn from History?

“Why do we bother to study the past?”

Like many other teachers, I sometimes begin the new school year by putting this question to my eager young pupils. It could be considered The Great Challenge of All History Teachers Everywhere—getting kids to see the relevance of something that happened a thousand years ago, when they (like most of us) are much more focused on what happened fifteen minutes ago. To make things more difficult, fifteen years is all most of them have in the way of life experience. It’s a small window of context.

Most students dutifully respond with some version of the old cliché that “We study the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them again in the future.”

For me, this answer does nothing to elicit the little bubbles of history teacher joy that some might expect. On the contrary, it often shows just how far we have to go.

This is not because I necessarily share Hegel’s pessimistic counter that the only thing “we learn from history (is) that we do not learn from history.” The problem is, different people draw different lessons from the past. The Great Depression is often cited as proof both that government intervention in the economy works, and that it doesn’t. In more recent history, some claim Obama’s economic policies helped to avert a second Great Depression, while others counter that they needlessly prolonged the Great Recession and continue to hinder robust economic growth. Who knows which view historians will ultimately choose.

Even when we attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past, we often focus on the last mistake and not the ones that precipitated it. The satirical magazine The Onion succeeds brilliantly in illustrating just how short-term our memories are in this hilarious article, entitled: “Obama Assures Americans that This Will Not Be Another 1456 Siege of Belgrade.” Enjoy the following delicious morsels:

“I can promise you this: My administration and I will not repeat the mistakes of Sultan Mehmed II,” Obama continued. “Believe me, we have all learned the lessons from the campaign to subjugate the Kingdom of Hungary following the fall of Constantinople.”

“When I heard we were getting involved in Syria, right away I thought, ‘Well, here we go, it’s 1456 Belgrade all over again,’” said Seattle resident Matt Haggerty, 42, who, like millions of Americans, says he “in no way supports the idea” of getting entangled in any military campaign even remotely similar to the Ottoman invasion of the Catholic Balkans. “Look, we all know what happened in Belgrade: Mehmed II thought he had everything under control, but Hungarian nobleman John Hunyadi organized a peasant army of roughly 50,000 soldiers and relied on the strength of the city’s castle to breach the Ottoman’s formidable naval blockade, which prevented any further imperial advances into Europe for roughly 70 years. And frankly, like most of my friends and neighbors, I see very little separating what we’re about to do in Syria and what the Anatolian corps did during their all-out assault on the Belgrade fortress from the Danube River. ”

For more serious evidence of the limits of learning from history, look no further than the World Wars. Hitler “studied” the causes of German failure in World War I and arrived at conclusions so disastrously flawed that they resulted in an even more destructive war. World War I provides a cautionary tale against rushing into war; World War II against appeasing aggressors. If we really learned from the lessons of the past, World War I would have remained “The War to End All Wars,” instead of just the first act in a blood-drenched century featuring total warfare and genocide.

A basic understanding of human nature assures us that greed, mistrust, and pride are not going extinct anytime soon; thus, neither is war or the immeasurable human suffering it causes. Those who predict that a better understanding of history will lead to its end are fooling themselves.

I think a better answer to the question of “Why study history?” is that the past is capable of providing a broader context in which to better understand our own lives. Most of us will walk the earth for at most a hundred years, while mankind has been around for perhaps 100,000. Many of the challenges of our times are not unique, but paralleled at various points in history. While we may not succeed in avoiding the same mistakes as our ancestors, we can still learn from them, but only if we are very careful.

Whenever history is called upon to settle present debates, it is important to remember that the people of the past were real people just like us, with all their desires and fears, shortcomings and virtues. We too often resurrect their ghosts just to be used as mouthpieces for the advancement of our own agendas.

Mark Twain insightfully observed that there are only three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This quote illustrates that sometimes stating a supposed “fact” can often obscure a larger truth. It is just this sort of danger in which amateur historians (which includes most politicians and commentators) can find themselves.

We need real historians to correct our narrow misconceptions and short-sightedness. Even then, we can never fully escape the limits of our own time and perspective, not that this invalidates the effort. If I didn’t believe in the many benefits of a responsible study of the past, I would have chosen a different line of work.

In my next post on the topic of the usefulness of history, I will discuss what this means in light of President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast.

A Thank You Letter to My Students

Another year at Patrick Henry High School is drawing to a close. Teachers and students alike can be heard counting down the final days until summer vacation. Like most, I am glad for the time I will get to spend with my family this June and July. I’ll be able to get my house organized, take my boys to the pool, and go on a week-long trip to the beach—a rare treat for us. I will celebrate the endless days, the warm nights counting the stars from my back porch, the sweet berries growing wild along the road and in the fields. I can’t wait for the first real summer thunderstorm, the feel of electricity that builds in the air until the sky explodes in bursts of lightning.

But before the final bell sounds, before the memories of this year start to fade into the routine of sunscreen and swim practice and burgers sizzling on the grill, I’d like to remember the people who have made this year special.

Teaching is not always an easy career. It can be difficult to stay positive in the face of daily apathy, disrespect, and immaturity. A low point for me came one morning in March when I happened to spill a mug full of coffee in the middle of a crowded hall. I watched in horror as the light brown liquid spread to a nearby student’s bright white sneakers (apparently teenagers can be pretty particular about their shoes?) Needless to say, it was not fun to start off the morning getting cussed out by an irate seventeen-year-old boy who towered over me by about a foot.

But something happens over the course of a year when even the difficult kids become your kids. As he was handing in his final exam, one of my students, looking almost regretful, said “Thank you for being my teacher.” I simply replied, “Thank you for being my student.”

I’d like to thank the 125 students who have given me the privilege of being their teacher this year. I will remember you all, even if I struggle to recall your name in a couple years. Thank you for doing all (most? some?) of the work I gave you. Thank you for listening to me blather on excitedly about whatever it happened to be that day. I am pleased that I can say good things about all of you, even the few who went out of your way to make this difficult. While I am grateful for the opportunity to have taught all of you, some stand out from the crowd and require additional recognition.

To the girl who failed that first test of the year—

Thank you for coming in after school to go over every single question that you missed. Thanks for not giving up when you realized it was going to be a hard year. Thanks for working to earn your “A.”

To the girl who said “thank you” after every class—

Thank you for expressing your appreciation. Most students act like they are doing the teacher a favor when they apply themselves. Thanks for understanding that that door swings both ways.

To the boy who is smarter than the teacher and probably knows it—

Thank you for your respect. Thanks for realizing that even though your I.Q. is off the charts and I can’t even understand the topic of your Science Fair project, that I still have something to teach you about world history. One day when you have discovered a cure for cancer or invented some amazing new technology, I look forward to telling people, “I taught him when he was in high school.”

To the boy who spilled a Monster drink in class on the first day of school—

Thank you for calling your mother and admitting you plagiarized that essay, even after you begged me not to tell her. Thank you for admitting you had made a mistake and accepting the consequences of your actions. Even though you complained all year about having to learn about the parts of the world that weren’t ‘Merica, I hope you appreciate the knowledge you have gained.

To my three pregnant students—

At first I didn’t know why your grades dropped, why you skipped class, why you stared at the wall for a week and refused to speak. Thank you for continuing to come to class and apply yourselves to your studies despite having your lives changed forever. The road ahead will not be easy, but with the right attitude and support you can still accomplish your goals. You have each resolved to do the best for yourselves and your children, and I wish you the best.

To the girl with the hard life—

You started off the year with such promise. Then something happened; I don’t know what. You stopped coming to class. I saw you in the hall once, a week before the SOL. I almost didn’t recognize you. I asked you where you had been, and you told me I couldn’t even understand what you were going through. I said I believed you, but that I didn’t want to see you fail. I got you a review book and told you to study. That’s when I heard what was going on from another teacher and it was worse than anything I could have imagined. You failed the SOL the first time. Yesterday before your retake, you handed me back the review book. You had completed every single page. You passed with a 400. You are a beautiful, smart young lady. Whatever is going on in your life, don’t let it derail your future. Thank you for working hard to pass, despite it all.

To the Sudanese boy who sat in the back—

Thank you for raising your hand to answer the question even when you got it wrong. Thank you for helping the Nepali boy who sat beside you. Thank you for being the most polite student I have had all year.

To the girl who challenged me—

Just when I thought this year was going to be easy, you seemed determined to prove me wrong. You loudly announced to the whole class one morning in October that since you were getting a good grade, you should be allowed to do anything else that you wanted, no matter how disruptive. You tried to wrestle control of the class away from me, and forced me to step in and take it back. Because of you, the class got a new seating chart. I put you right beside myself. The mask you wear may be loud and obnoxious, but beneath it I was able to glimpse a young lady who cares about her classmates. One of your best friends was accidentally shot and killed just before Christmas, and yet you came to school the next day to comfort your friends, through the tears. At the end of the year, I asked the class, “Which of you are leaders?” You were one of the only two students to raise your hand. Remember to lead your friends in the right direction. They will follow you, regardless. Thank you for making me laugh with your witty comments. Thank you for pushing me to be a better teacher.

To the girl who I inspired—

Thank you for letting me be a role model to you. Thank you for seeking my advice. Thank you for telling me that I inspired you to want to be a teacher too. Thank you for that look of admiration I was able to catch on occasion in your eyes, the look that made me think: this is really getting through to her. You asked me if I remembered you from last year when you were in my AP World History class for one day before dropping out. I did remember you. Towards the end of the year, you told me you should have stayed in AP World History, but that you weren’t really focused and there were other things going on in your life. Thank you for signing up for AP Government for next year. When I asked the class, “Which of you are leaders?” you were the only other student brave enough to raise your hand. You were right. Thank you for the confidence you have found over the course of this year. I can’t wait to see where it takes you.