American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project



Linda Wells

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers
Edward L. Rocklin

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and
The Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells
Boston University

In his play, Butley, Simon Gray has created a marvelously cynical, irreverent English professor at London University who makes us laugh and cringe at the same time. Butley, a drunken slacker, sits in his office behind heaps of unread papers, keeping students at bay with complaints of his administrative duties which must, he claims, take precedence over his tutorials with them. His officemate, Joey, notes that Butley has forgotten to return a student’s master’s thesis: Butley quips, “Not yet. So far I’ve forgotten to read it. Forgetting to give it back will come later” (12). As they are discussing curricular developments in the department, Butley rails against Joey for not opposing the new book list of contemporary novels which Butley will then have to teach: “Fool! Imbecile! Traitor! Lackey! — I wouldn’t be caught dead reading those books. And you know how it exhausts me to teach books I haven’t read” (16). At times we would like to be able to emulate the cynicism of Butley, and in our darker moments of teaching, we no doubt create in our minds Butleyesque dialogue, mortifying the aggressively dull student with our wit or bursting the bubble of the idealistic colleague who expects to change the world with her teaching.

If we have some of Butley in us, we also hope to have equal parts of Kingsfield, the brilliant mythological figure of the law professor in The Paper Chase, who hectors and badgers his students until they either quit law school or bend to his will. Foremost is the subject, the law, which must never be compromised. Add to Butley and Kingsfield a little of the character-formation achieved by Miss Stacy in Anne of Green Gables, who by her own strength of character motivates students to excel in their studies while never losing sight of the ethical life. Or the dedicated Mr. Chips. Or the romantic though often misbegotten zeal of Miss Jean Brody

Even though these and a myriad of other images of the teacher crowd our minds, most of us who teach are mere mortals who fashion a persona in the classroom, patching it together from teachers who have inspired and motivated us, and trying to avoid the tactics of those who have disappointed and bored us. Both the positive and negative models have assisted us in our reflection about and creation of the teacher we want to be or hope we are. Being interested in this process by which students become teachers, I interviewed 17 high school and college history and literature teachers.

When I began this project, I thought they would tell me something of the differences between high school and college teaching in the Humanities. They did this, but they said so much more about the process by which one becomes a teacher and what is the nature of the teaching enterprise. I have entitled this essay, “Moving to the Other Side of the Desk,” because unlike other professions, the student becomes what, for many years, he has beheld. Yet the subtitle of the essay is also true, for each teacher spoke of a good deal of unpreparedness for teaching and the process of  “self-fashioning,” or creating a persona who could teach effectively. While Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare exposes the idea of self-fashioning as it applies to writers and their character-creations, I have taken the term to apply more broadly to the entire process of identity construction. Greenblatt develops a compelling conceptual model of how such construction occurs. In analyzing Othello, for example, he establishes how Iago masks himself publicly; yet we wonder how much of his private narrative revealed only to the audience is also mask and how much is authentic. We see in all of the characters, as well, how each is susceptible to the narratives of others: how Desdemona is fashioned by Emilia or Othello by Iago. These concepts established by Greenblatt seem fruitful when applied to the construction of a teaching persona. Throughout the interviews, teachers wondered at their authenticity, they commented on the masks they wore; they suggested how susceptible they had been to the narratives of their own teachers. They often noted that teaching is a mysterious process, not always fully understood by the conscious mind.

On Becoming a Teacher

The process of becoming a teacher involves that somewhat mysterious relationship between teacher and student. How much does a student’s success depend upon the ability to involve the teacher in her education? This question often remains unexamined, while greater attention is paid to the exclusive role of the teacher. As I interviewed teachers, I became increasingly fascinated by the role of the student. I described my own “education” within the family, because I think I am not an isolated example. I entered formal education with a presence, an attitude that I belonged there and that good things would happen to me there. The teachers I interviewed also had a generally positive attitude toward their own education, though I would characterize most of them as strongly ambivalent toward “schooling.” This may be in part related to the fact that many of them were in school in the 1950s and in college in the 1960s, but the categories seem to apply to the younger teachers as well, so I am inclined to think that teachers are by nature identified with and rebellious toward authority. It may be necessary to hold this tension in balance to be successful as teachers, because it allows us to work with students who are closer to the rebel than the teacher-pleaser.

Although these categories might be applied to all teachers, I chose to interview only history and literature teachers because I am interested in dimensions of humanities education, as well as the broader enterprise of teaching itself. What led these individuals to choose these disciplines, I wondered, and how do they view themselves as teachers of the humanities?

Most of the people in the study knew well before college that they would become literature or history majors. Even those who chose other majors initially did so for practical reasons. In two cases, those who eventually went on to study history began as science or engineering majors, but changed because “history took them over.” One selected engineering because it was encouraged in the 1950s even though he quickly came to realize he had little aptitude for it, and the other, in the 1980s, selected chemistry but found that, although she had an aptitude for it, it didn’t allow for much personal development. She notes:

I was loving my history courses but people said there were no jobs. By my sophomore year, it ceased to be important to me if there were jobs or not. It just seemed to be what I wanted to study. The point of a liberal arts education was not to get a job — Lawrence University effectively convinced me of this. Then, too, I had teachers who managed to exam me in ways that made me think I had gotten more out of the course than I thought. And like a good laboratory rat, I continued the behavior.

In the case of the literature teachers, one noted that he had gone to Bronx Science High School in the late 1950s and assumed that he would be a biology major in college. As a junior in high school, however, he read Crime and Punishment: “After that there wasn’t any doubt that I was in literature.” Of course the literature teachers noted books, in general, as being the reason for their continued study, but three mentioned Crime and Punishment specifically as the book that defined their vocation. Another Dostoyevsky devotee tells this story:

I discovered reading. I did not go on to college right away, because my family couldn’t afford it — my father had recently died. So I worked and I read and I can even tell you the book that took the top of my head off: Crime and Punishment. That book changed my life. I said I had to read more Dostoyevsky — more literature. I went on to other writers. I’ve always marveled at the thing literature gives us, “the ability to live life backwards,” as Kierkegaard said, while we are living it forwards. It is just the endless plane of imagination where you can escape, you can invent, you can imagine, you can fantasize, question, doubt, reveal youself, confess, you can do everything, anything, that you ever wanted to do that you can’t do in the work-a-day world of reality.

I would conclude that both literature and history teachers were led to their fields because they liked stories, whether imaginative narratives or the stories of real people. It was evident that the literature majors could easily have been history majors and vice versa; in fact, in one case, a teacher has a bachelor’s degree in English but teaches history. Often this interest in stories developed outside the classroom, in private reading, and was then reinforced by inspiring teachers. Another teacher describes his interest in reading:

I think for me it had to do with adolescence. I went through a period when my family moved when I was 12; it lasted about 20 or 30 years. One of the things I did during that period was to discover music and especially literature. It became an important escape and it probably would have been insignificant for my later life except that the books I read were Crime and Punishment and Madame Bovary. I inadvertently learned to have taste.

For all the teachers, reading was an education in itself, but each had inspirational role models who encouraged them as students and assisted them in fashioning their own teaching persona when the time came to move to the other side of the desk. The features of an inspiring teacher are not particularly surprising, but the thoughtfulness and respect expressed by those interviewed was itself inspiring, as if the mantle had been passed. Certainly the most often noted features were the depth of knowledge of the teacher and the ability to engage students in the act of learning. It seems that the most inspiring teachers are able to do both, because as one person noted, she had teachers who knew a great deal, but the ones she truly admired were not merely “acting smart” in front of the class, but could demystify the knowledge and make her feel secure in her ability to learn. She went on to say that she assimilated this into her own teaching, for a rewarding comment on her teaching evaluations is one that says, “I loved this class because it made me feel so smart.” Inherent in this statement is the challenge that the course presented, but also the fact that one goal of teaching is to energize the student through the power of ideas.

Another teacher remembers a freshman English teacher, a rather quiet presence in the class, who inspired by his sparing and somewhat cryptic commentary on papers. On the first paper, the teacher had written “You know how to write; you just don’t know what to write. That will come.” By the eighth paper of the semester, the student had given up trying to discover what the teacher wanted on papers and was beginning to develop an authentic voice. Upon reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this student developed a genuine insight about the book, linking the work with his own Catholic youth. When the paper was returned, the only comment was “Now you’ve got it.” This is an excellent example of what in Women’s Ways of Knowing is called constructed knowledge, when the knower merges with what is known. Now a teacher himself, this individual seemed to focus less upon the content of what was taught and more upon the process of thinking in which he was encouraged to participate. He said, “Teachers who ask questions of purpose and who invite ideas [are inspiring]. I always responded poorly to teachers who wanted me to tell them what they already knew.”

Gaining that balance in the classroom between expectations about content and process is a difficult task for all of us, and many teachers spoke of that balancing act. One way to do it is to create a challenging course of study and establish real expectations, while at the same time, conveying the sense of support for the students. For example, one teacher mentioned his high school Latin teacher: “he was competent and he was hard. He expected us to be competent too. He really instilled the idea that learning this and getting good at it mattered.” He goes on to mention a college literature teacher who had the same qualities: “She loved what she was doing (19th-century poetry) and exuded this idea that what she was doing was important.”

Not surprisingly, high school English teachers figured prominently in people’s imagery of inspiration, especially women teachers. It has become commonplace in education to suggest the reason for this: before the 1960s truly dedicated and intellectual women turned to secondary education as the place for fulfillment, being cut off from most other professions where their talents might have been realized.

Three people mentioned their Latin teachers, for their dedication and scholarly approach to the subject. One teacher described how her Latin teacher became a role model once she began her own teaching of history:

He laid bare for me the thinking processes and he set Latin forth not as a language, but as a logical system. It was almost mathematical; much like my physics teacher, he said here are the rules to a language. Now fill in the blanks. Here is a particular pattern of thinking; this is how Latin is different because it uses this logical system. Latin is different because there is a different philosophy behind it compared to Romance and Germanic languages. It was like being Helen Keller — an epiphany — and once I discovered this system, I went into other classes and looked for the rules that governed those subjects.

What is significant here is not just that this teacher helped her understand principles of Latin, but she was herself able to extrapolate and apply the idea of governing principles to other disciplines, another example of constructed knowledge. She notes that as a teacher this is her primary pedagogical method, laying bare for students the rules governing inquiry in the social sciences.

Creating a Teacher Persona

Teachers came to acknowledge their teaching vocation at various times in their lives as students. Some, like myself, knew early on that they were destined to teach, and so it was just a matter of waiting to grow up. We were the kind of students already preparing to teach, as we sat in elementary and high school classes, scrutinizing our own teachers, evaluating their successes and failures. The reality that they would be teachers only dawned on some people, however, when they were getting advanced degrees. Even the high school teachers were not all in teacher training programs as undergraduates, earning instead bachelor’s degrees in history or literature without a firm commitment to teaching. Many worked in other fields before going into high school teaching. In two cases, teachers had worked in publishing, found it simply boring, and then began to think seriously about teaching. One individual said he never wanted to be a high school teacher, and only after several years doing it did he finally acknowledge that he was, in fact, a teacher. Upon reflection, he thought he had been teaching all his life, even as a third-grader, when he became a reader, collected a number of books of his own, and then started a lending library of sorts in his neighborhood. A parent whose child he had motivated to read said that he ought to think about being a teacher, and perhaps the seed was planted at that early age.

Career selection is usually preceded by visual imagery. What can I see myself doing? What kind of work will be satisfying? Some people had identified early with their teachers and could easily see themselves in that role. Others had more difficulty with the choice. One college literature teacher said he truly admired old-fashioned scholars, teachers with an aggressive pursuit of the scholarly and who were still curious about the subject even after thirty years teaching it. Occasionally, however, he would look at one of these somewhat eccentric scholars with papers bulging out of his briefcase and be taken over with approach/avoidance: “Is that what I want to be? . . . That’s what I want to be.”

If these teachers are right, no one can teach someone else how to teach. Those who had been in teacher training programs were singularly negative in their views about such programs, believing them to be for the most part a waste of time. This may arise from the fact that teaching is not a procedure, like brain surgery or brick-laying, but a constant interaction. Effectiveness requires more than talent; it requires a good deal of time to mature. It is also incredibly tiring, for the teacher is usually the primary energy force in the classroom, especially for those who have a captive audience of high school students or general education non-majors. I realized as I was conducting this study that teachers are unique in that all their work time involves interaction; perhaps an orchestra conductor is the closest comparison.

Nearly all the college teachers felt they too were ill-prepared for teaching, because while a Ph.D. prepares one to be an effective scholar and researcher, very little time is devoted in most programs to teaching. Most college literature teachers had been teaching fellows, before beginning their first full-time teaching, but the process was to throw them into freshman composition or literature classes and watch them sink or swim. How, then, did we become teachers of the Humanities? One teacher, who is also a writer, spoke about the process of self-fashioning: “I am not a natural teacher and am basically a shy individual. I wrote a fictional character called Wex who could be a successful teacher. So in a sense that is a literary creation, a kind of mask that adheres.” While he spoke of many teachers who inspired him in the field of literary studies, he never thought of modeling himself on anyone who had been his teacher. His initial attempts at course design were based upon what he had learned to do well in graduate school: to write papers. “So my approach to teaching these very talented 18-to-20-year-old people was to spend time in the library writing three hours worth of graduate seminar-type papers each week and delivering them as lectures in class. I had no other conception of how to do things and the students were extremely nice to me, put up with this, and even said they valued what I was doing. But I obviously had learned nothing about teaching then.”

The Emergent Teacher

While few of the teachers I spoke with felt well prepared for their first teaching assignment, all have survived those first years with a vision of what they are doing as teachers of the humanities. We were formed by the vision of our own teachers and have become their product. We were, to use Greenblatt’s concept, in large part susceptible to their narratives. That product, however, is not static, but is itself continuing to change over time. Said another way, as teachers we continue to be students, and we hope that the process will live on in our students, some of whom may also become teachers. If we take another set of categories from Women’s Ways of Knowing, received and procedural knowledge, perhaps we can get at some of the variations in the vision of what should be humanities education. I was interested in finding out if teachers taught what they were taught, receiving knowledge and learning the procedures that governed their discipline, or did they do something more; did they alter their perspective over time, participating in the construction of knowledge? Part of the self-fashioning is the creation of a pedagogue, but equally important in the self-fashioning is the creation of a scholar. How we teach is formed by what we idealize as the inspirational teacher, and the teachers were very close together in defining that ideal.

It is in the area of scholarship, or more specifically content, that the greatest variations occur. This is not surprising, given the explosion of new knowledge and new perspectives of the past two decades. There were equal numbers of progressives, seeking change in content and method, and conservatives, looking to preserve the tradition, among the high school and college teachers, though few could be called purely one or the other. Probably more typical was the schizophrenic — or less pejoratively, the Renaissance figure — who blended progressive and conservative approaches to the humanities in his or her teaching. Nearly everyone I interviewed, except the very youngest teachers, was taught from the new critical perspective in literature or the master narrative perspective in history. Nearly everyone valued these perspectives, in literature because it teaches close readings of texts and in history because it gives a spine to historical narrative. I concluded that what has occurred over the past two decades is a shaking out and a blending of different approaches and perspectives. While critical trends may be set by high-powered scholars who teach primarily graduate students and while the heated debates may go on among those individuals, the rank-and-file teachers in high schools and general education college programs seem less inclined to be defined as one kind of “ist” over another. One teacher noted that he had always avoided being an ist.:

I don’t want to be thought of as the deconstructionist or new critic or whatever. . . . You use the critical device most appropriate to the text before you. For “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” new criticism is appropriate, whereas feminist criticism works for “The Story of an Hour.” The same holds for philosophy. I make Plato and Aristotle a good deal clearer for my students with a Marxist analysis, showing their class interests, whereas I might not do that with Kant. Here the biographical approach might be best: why did he develop a guilty conscience based upon what happened to him and his parents? . . . I guess I see critical theory as a series of contributions to a very large body — a bulky instrument, sometimes a blunderbuss — and you pick and choose what is most helpful, and it’s not that one excludes the other.

This position is illustrative of nearly all the literature teachers interviewed, though high school teachers thought they lacked depth in the area of literary and cultural theory. This is no doubt the case because the traditional approach is to read primary texts as an undergraduate and only at the graduate level is one trained as a literary critic, in terms of taking on or being reflective about different schools of thought. All of the literature teachers spoke about selecting “good” literature, though that did not necessarily mean European, English or American literature.

One need that I heard expressed by the high school teachers in particular was more time for scholarship. In general, they feel so overwhelmed by the juggling act of teaching four or five classes a day, that reading in new areas is virtually impossible. But it is that reading which is so vital. How can a teacher maintain a conceptually challenging course without such continuing scholarship?

Among the history teachers, there was a similar blending of perspectives. Nearly everyone saw the danger in losing a master narrative which might act as a spine, but nearly everyone was also dedicated to the teaching of social history, along with political and economic history. Social history was for some a way to enliven the narrative for students who seem fascinated by letters, diaries, and journals, when state documents and official knowledge escape them. For others it was necessary to show students that history wasn’t something that just happened to presidents or empire builders; one might say it is both vertical, moving through the society at a particular moment, and horizontal, moving through time. It wasn’t that teachers disagreed philosophically; the problems arise in the implementation when courses are designed and knowledge is packaged. Everyone spoke of the pinch of time — as one teacher noted, “the problem isn’t what to put in, but what to leave out.”

Most people compromise by teaching ways of reading — the methodology that opens up critical inquiry in the humanities, rather than coverage, thinking that if students know how to read a text or how to take apart an argument, they can extrapolate to other areas of study. All of the teachers spoke of the need to create intellectually rich and challenging courses filled with generative ideas, citing their most inspiring teachers as being capable of just that. But what are the obstacles to the achievement of such lofty goals?

Knowledge: The Teacher and the Student

In a provocative essay entitled “On the Hidden Treasure of Paid Attention: The Need to Know,” developmental psychologist Robert Graham Kegan focuses his critical lens on the child rather than the teacher. He argues that the successful child has been able to get others to take an interest in her. Following this line of inquiry, we might conclude that the successful students who sit before us when they are 15 or 18 or 20 have found a way to insinuate themselves into the consciousness of their teachers. Kegan claims that this need to connect with others may be universal:

The reasons why we are drawn to others, especially to their welfare, are surely mysterious. But so many of the eliciting situations seem to harken back to the exigencies of this basic life motion, the activity of knowing and the threat of not knowing. We are drawn to a person in heroic struggle; we are drawn to a person vulnerably alone; we are drawn to a person who seems intensely alive; we are drawn to a person whose efforts make a kind of “perfect sense” to us. I admit to wondering if our attraction is not of some force “bigger than both of us,” a kind of “species sympathy” which we do not share so much as it shares us. (28)

Many of those interviewed mentioned inspiring teachers who had touched them in some way, by taking a personal interest in them, singling them out for special encouragement, or helping them through a particularly difficult time. Certainly this is admirable, but I suggested that perhaps it was something in them, as students, that had elicited this interest. There is a mystery to the classroom, and nearly everyone spoke in some way about it. How is it that students and teachers look across the desk at each other and are able to connect one to the other on both an intellectual and emotional level? One teacher noted that his goal as a teacher is to become transparent such that the text can speak directly to the student: “That’s what I aspire to — to make myself obsolete and to vanish. To become clear as glass. But I understand that with the students I currently teach, sometimes that while they may not be able to understand Kierkegaard, they may be able to understand me explaining Kierkegaard.”

At the heart of all the teachers’ comments was a deeply ethical dimension to the entire enterprise of teaching the humanities. In both pedagogy and content, teachers held real convictions about the value of the humanities. Their words were filled with hope that students would be larger, richer, more multi-dimensional, more stimulated, more fulfilled for having studied the humanities. For both history and literature teachers alike, there was the assumption that students would learn something about themselves from this inquiry, something about relationships with others, and something about cultures and how they function.

Were there obstacles to achieving these ideals? Of course. Nearly all teachers bemoaned the fact that students are essentially non-readers. For people who have made books the center of their lives, this is a hard pill to swallow, not simply because non-readers will miss a whole world of the imagination, but because it is difficult to conceive of a democracy functioning without a literate and engaged populace. For one teacher, in particular, this latter reason prompted him to stress the need to teach Western culture, for he argues that it is the culture that founded the idea of democracy and continues to speak for personal freedom.

Often, however, we don’t know what long-term impact our courses have on our students. Perhaps the ones who seem disengaged, the ones in whom we find it difficult to take an interest, may in fact be enlivened by an idea years later. One teacher told a story about a student, an African-American man, who sat through his philosophy course, getting a C and looking somewhat bored. Yet, two years later, the student came up to him and asked if he had seen A Soldier’s Story. The teacher said no, but that didn’t dissuade the student from laying out an analysis, with full references to split consciousness and intersubjectivity. “When he was in the class, he gave no indication that he had anything more than a superficial understanding of the concepts, yet he got from my class the equipment to talk about the film, and pretty articulately, as I remember.” The categories of thought were there, the generative ideas: what the student needed was a text that resonated with him, another fine example of constructed knowledge. This is perhaps most illustrative of the need to develop richly-textured, conceptual courses, for the concept will remain when the details of a battle, or the flower imagery of a poem has been forgotten.

In trying to discover how teachers constructed humanities courses, I asked what became one of the most provocative questions in the interview. The question read, if you knew you had the following groups of students in your course, would you change anything in pedagogy or content: six Black Muslims, six fundamentalist Christians, six gay or lesbian students, six feminists, and six recent immigrants? Whether people initially said yes or no, they all went on to qualify their answers. Most people said they would not change the content, working from the assumption that the course they had constructed was good in itself, a body of essential knowledge for all students regardless of their personal histories or circumstances. Nearly everyone said they would welcome such students because of the diversity of views it would provide, or that these students were already in their classes. Here again we note the ethical position of these teachers. No one wanted to make a student feel uncomfortable because of his beliefs or orientation. There was a consistently expressed view that the classroom was a kind of sacred space in which students should be free to express themselves, and could effectively learn in that space how to be impassioned without belittling people with different views. Also everyone commented upon the lively discussions that come from such a diverse group, recognizing that students do speak and analyze from a personal perspective.

Yet the matter of representation of groups in the curriculum was a thorny one. People were of two minds about this, but the consensus was that representation was not a good basis for curriculum design. For example, a novel by an African-American might be chosen, not because African-American students needed to see their culture represented, but because the book was good for all students to read and because there was some principle driving the selection of all texts in the course. Of course, teachers select from what they know, and if they only know the traditional canon of authors, then one might argue that all their students are a little poorer for this. The virtue of the struggles in the past two decades might be that teachers have been encouraged or forced to keep up in their discipline either to enrich their courses or to talk back to their critics. Here again the rank-and-file teachers have, over time, blended and synthesized new knowledge. For example, history teachers spoke of the need to teach world cultures, not just Western civilization, because knowing more about all cultures is a virtue.

In the interviews, I mentioned that some of my women students who are interested in gender issues often go on to read very difficult theoretical feminist texts. In this way a personal perspective feeds one’s intellectual interests and leads one to do challenging work. I am, however, aware of the need for balance. I don’t want to assume that women will necessarily go on to study women’s history and African-Americans will go on to be ethnic studies specialists. Maybe they will go on to be economists, engineers, or concert pianists. As one teacher noted, when it is time to give the gender lecture in a team-taught social science course, everyone looks around the conference table. It just happens that among the faculty, the one best schooled in feminist theory is a male, while the women are specialists in the Scottish Reformation and post-war China.

The challenge is how to capture reluctant students’ attention through their personal experience with material, but then to move them to other material more foreign to them. I recall that in my own reading history, two of my favorite books in high school were Boswell’s Life of Johnson and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The role of the humanities is to show us that, while our experiences are valid and often become the stuff of novels, we have the power to appreciate totally “foreign” texts and ideas.

On Becoming a Teacher: Personal Reflections

In the process of interviewing these 17 teachers, I became reflective about my own experiences as a student and training as a teacher. I also had to examine my own assumptions about humanities education and the role of the teacher in contemporary culture, for the patterns I delineate from the interviews are projected through my own selection of detail, emphasis, and interpretive stance.

My first teachers were not teachers at all in the formal sense, but my maternal grandparents who gave me “an attitude.” They were about as incompatible as a couple could be: my grandmother, a hard-nosed pragmatist, a steam-roller of a woman, could work like a man in the fields and then come indoors and do another full job of washing, ironing, cooking, and cleaning; my grandfather, also a powerful worker, but a dreamer too, fantasized about leaving the farm which was his prison to make a name for himself. At five, I lived with them, together with my mother and sister, following the death of my father a year earlier. My mother worked and my sister went to first grade (we had no kindergarten in rural Colorado of the 1950s). That year on the farm, I was my grandmother’s partner and slave, learning to be not merely competent, but omnicompetent. As a five-year-old, I could churn butter in the dasher churn (until it really became butter and was too heavy for me to lift), gather eggs and kindling, pluck chickens with some assistance (after witnessing my grandmother whack off their heads in the wood pile), iron my grandfather’s work shirt since a few wrinkles didn’t matter, and crawl behind the wood stove to scrub the baseboards. I must say, while I learned that physical labor could be satisfying, I have never taken on the view that obscure dirt needs to be rooted out. Given the choice between the removal of even obvious clutter and reading a book, I’ll read the book every time.

My grandfather took his turn as teacher, but with him I was more the observer, since my hands were too small and weak to milk cows effectively or to scrape bristles from the newly-butchered pig. In retrospect, I suppose that year was a bit bloody in its imagery; certainly it was earthy with the ammonia smell of the newly-plowed fields or the jewel-like feel of the wheat and oats in the granary or the deep-red of ripe tomatoes in the garden. That year was simply idyllic, and the lesson was that a five-year-old could work and gain the satisfaction from such labor.

Once I started school, my grandparents would teach me lessons of a different sort, or maybe it is more accurate to say that the competence I learned from them carried over into my schooling, and that each of them had an attitude about schooling itself. Even before I started first grade, my sister, my third teacher, would return each day from her class, taught by Miss Brannam, and teach me what she had learned. When I started first grade, I entered Miss Brannam’s class, sat in my desk, and opened my pencil box and Big Chief tablet, ready for business. Quickly I ascended to the Blue Bird group, for my sister had already taught me to read, something which she regreted when reading took over my life.

Teresa was a bit of a tomboy, so living on a farm provided a rich landscape for the adventures she concocted in her mind. The farm, primitive even for its time, was worked with draft horses, Buster, Bob, and Bill (my grandfather, the dreamer, didn’t waste much imagination on names of horses). Teresa would sit on the stationary equipment — plow, harrow, or whatever — and pretend that she was a pioneer moving West. But it was a lonely life, going West alone, so she would come indoors and plead with me. “Please, come outside. You can evenhave the seat on the manure spreader.” As I looked up at her from my place in my grandfather’s reclining chair, my upper lip curled back in disdain, I held my book like a sacred text for her to see: “The manure spreader, when I have this? You must be joking!” I wish I could say that at the age of eight, I was reading fine literature, but it was only Nancy Drew’s The Clue in the Diary, the first big book I ever read, and the rest, as they say, is history. I didn’t know then that you could actually be paid for reading books and talking about them to students, but my life from that time forward was taken up with books. School was now the place to be. I carried to school that need to be competent, and to this day, calling me incompetent is the greatest injury anyone could do to me. I wanted to please the teachers because they were worthy, in my eyes, of such respect: they had knowledge; they could tell me about more books.

This quest for education was reinforced by my grandfather, a brilliant man who had been denied the education he would have cherished. He preached education to us, and not just because it would “get us somewhere,” beyond the working class peasantry. But there was magic in knowing. Even while he taught us to love learning, he also taught us to be skeptical and wary of ideas and the purveyors of those ideas. He was what I have come to understand now as an unschooled Marxist, with a strong streak of the Italian anarchist in him. More than the content of what he conveyed about “the little man,” the abuse of power, and the corruption of government, my sister and I took from him an attitude of skepticism and an analytical ability that is necessary for one to appreciate and be capable of irony.

My grandmother also conveyed to us an attitude about education that was somewhat contradictory. My grandmother’s early life had been much harder than my grandfather’s. She was also the daughter of Italian immigrants, but when she was seven years old, her father died of miner’s consumption, leaving my great-grandmother with six children under the age of 10. After the second grade, my grandmother had to leave school, along with her older brother, to work the farm and help provide for the younger children. Despite my grandmother’s lack of education, she possessed great wit and common sense. She, along with her brothers and sisters, were also the best story tellers I have ever known, which may account for my continuing love of stories in all forms. Grandmother held a thoroughly pragmatic view of education: it would provide a woman economic security and some modicum of freedom. Certainly this was an easy lesson for us to learn, given the death of my father and the necessity for my mother to support us. My mother must have learned the lessons from her parents too, for she attended college for two years before the war came.

Quite ironically like my grandfather, my grandmother was also what we in the criticism trade call a “counter-identifier.” While they both saw the virtue in education — one as an end in itself and the other as a means to an end — they were on the alert for the possible stupifying power of education. My grandfather was suspicious of those ideas which might obscure what he took to be the realities of economic power. My grandmother’s skepticism was directed less at ideas and more at individuals. When a person in our community was treated with deference because of his advanced education, my grandmother would sometimes hurrumph that there were a lot of educated jackasses in the world. To this day, I check my own behavior against that standard: has my education gotten in the way of my common sense or humility? Sometimes at faculty or committee meetings where the educated are particularly prone to transforming themselves into jackasses, I look around the conference table and chuckle, as in my mind’s eye certain individuals become el burro in academic regalia. The academy has not entirely disappointed me in its affirmation of my grandmother’s dictum, nor, I’m sure, would many other professions.

The lessons my grandparents taught me have caused me to be simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the whole education enterprise, yet there have surely been more people to admire and emulate than to despise. The counter-identification must be left to another time, though some of my rebellious attitudes have probably seeped through in this analysis. The identification came early and continued over time: my grandmother called me a bookworm, usually on those occasions when I no longer wanted to look for obscure dirt behind the wood stove; my aunt called me “the little professor,” not only because I read a lot, but also because I held forth on a variety of subjects, probably a bore already at the age of eight. The nuns thought I would make a marvelous teacher, when they observed me teaching catechism to the younger children in the Catholic summer school. If they knew me now, they might approve of my teaching vocation, but not, I fear, of the state of my soul. By the time I was a junior in high school, I could boldly state to my English teacher that I would one day be a college professor. And here I am. I continue to be fascinated in my own students by the ways early experiences with books, teachers, and schooling operate in their lives. I, too, am often dismayed by the lack of force reading has for them, but I remember that we are in a time of great social change, with visual literacy rising as print literacy wanes. If I tend to rail too much against students for not reading, I seek correction by recalling that medieval monks may have railed against the invention of the printing press because it would mean no more illustrated texts. I hope students see the value in critical awareness and the application of ideas to experience, regardless of the artistic form of a work. Like the other teachers interviewed, I hold a strong conviction that the study of the humanities has a moral as well as an aesthetic dimension. We read stories, historical as well as fictional, to develop greater insight into how others see human existence. We witness the lives of artists — writers, filmmakers, painters — to see the world from their vantage point; we read history and biography to gain a look into the past, and to place ourselves in a context.

Richard Rorty, in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, argues the need for all of us, students and teachers alike, to think in terms of contingent rather than final vocabularies. Rorty says we must first be aware of the final vocabularies we have internalized (in the form of received knowledge). This necessitates becoming conscious of others’ narratives speaking through us, both personal and historical — of our grandparents, our teachers, our friends, as well as the voices of Plato, Kant, Marx, Austen, Wright, Neruda, Kurasawa, and others. If we have ceased to be students, then our vocabulary is final, fixed, unchanging, and we have atrophied. The ideal is for the vocabulary to remain contingent, changing with each new teacher we hear. Of course, students are themselves engaged directly in developing their “final” vocabulary Our voices join the many teachers who have come before us in their minds; we encourage them to “talk back” the way Kant spoke to Plato and Nietzsche spoke to Kant. The richness of humanities education is realized as teachers and students alike continue to develop through multiple voices and wrestle with the legitimacy and hegemony of ideas. In this way, the process of self-fashioning is unending.