Divided We Learn

OPINION: After shocking election, New York history teacher tries to alleviate ‘despair, anxiety or indignation’

Dealing with the fact that there are a lot of people in the world who think differently than you do is an important part of the work of becoming an adult

Jim Cullen teaching a history class in Concord, Massachusetts.

NEW YORK – When I threw the floor open to my class this morning, the main thing my charges seemed to want was information: Would he be allowed to do this? What will happen in the event of that? Growth begins with curiosity.

As a high school history teacher, I have two intersecting sources of solace as I go about my job the day after a historic—and to a great many people, upsetting—election. The first is that necessity requires me to put aside my own unease and confusion as I try to help adolescents process an event that is necessarily unprecedented for them, though I have resources (ranging from professional expertise in managing a conversation to having been around the block a time or two) that I bring to the classroom to assist with that.

My role is to help them feel better as a matter of trying to alleviate despair, anxiety or indignation, but also to feel better in the sense of thinking more clearly, to bring their hearts and their heads into greater alignment (or, at least, greater consciousness of each other).

The other source of solace, as necessarily incomplete as it is, stems from my vocation as a historian. The fact is that we’ve been here before—“here” being a shocking outcome that portends a major restructuring of our political landscape, led by a figure whom many people regard as unreliable at best. It happened in 1828, when Andrew Jackson—a man who terrified John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who had been at loggerheads for much of their political careers—became president.

Not coincidentally, we talked about Jackson in my U.S. History survey yesterday, whom I cast in terms of Jefferson’s famous anecdote of the plowman and the professor. State a moral case to both, Jefferson, said, and the plowman would be able to know what is right as well as the professor: this was Jefferson’s argument for democracy. But while the plowman knew, and could choose, the best course for the nation, there was never any question in Jefferson’s mind that the professor should be the one to actually run the country in the plowman’s interest.

The problem for the aging Founding Fathers and their Establishment heirs was that Jackson was a proverbial plowman without any interest in being a professor. Given that I teach in a school full of meritocratic would-be professors, I thought it important to emphasize that the plowmen periodically have their say on Election Day, even when, like Jackson and Donald J. Trump, they were hardly salt of their earth themselves.

That was a long time ago. But situations comparable to the ones my students are experiencing have happened even in my (admittedly long) lifetime. When I was in high school in 1980, a great many people had a very difficult time taking Ronald Reagan seriously—and to the degree they did, they were alarmed by what they knew (which is to say what he didn’t). Reagan was viewed as an ignorant warmonger, and most liberals at the time had a hard time imagining him ever becoming president.

So it was stunning not only that Reagan won that election, but won by a decisive margin that portended a major electoral realignment. There are many reasons why one can legitimately grieve what followed, but Reagan did not blow up the world, as many people believed he would. He instead helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

There are limits to such parallels. Jackson had been a career soldier before becoming president; Reagan had been governor of California. An incoming Donald J. Trump is notably lacking in government experience—which, of course, is precisely why a lot of people voted for him. And this may be where we come up against the limits of my capacity to provide reassurance.

Indeed, I’ve found myself thinking I should be trying to check my impulses in this regard, not only because I don’t want to make false predictions or promises, but also because dealing with uncertainty—and dealing with the fact that there are a lot of people in the world who think differently than you do—is an important part of the work of becoming an adult.

The founder of my school, Felix Adler, had a motto we routinely recite at Fieldston:

“The ideal of the school is not the adaptation of the individual to the existing social environment; it is to develop individuals who are competent to change their environment to greater conformity with moral ideals.” There’s no doubt about our community’s resolve in this regard, to which I (unlike some in that community) say: Thank God. My hope is that they will do this work attuned to the challenges of engaging and persuading those who live in different worlds they than do.

Jim Cullen is a history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and the author of “The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation” and other books.

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Jim Cullen

Jim Cullen is a history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York and the author of The American Dream: A Short History… See Archive

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