A U.S. History Teacher Scrambles to Explain Unprecedented Attacks and Desecration of Democracy

tags: teaching history, Capitol Riots

Jim Cullen teaches history in the newly established upper division at Greenwich Country Day School in Connecticut. His forthcoming novel, Best Class You Never Had, will be published in 2021.

When I first saw footage of rioters storming the U.S. Capitol last week, my instinctive response — before the despondency I felt at the desecration of American democracy, or the anger that would later have me shouting at my television set — was historical.

I scrolled through my memory for comparisons. There was the British burning of the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812, for example, and the ransacking of the White House in the exuberant celebration of Andrew Jackson’s inauguration in 1829 (the new president reputedly escaped the festivities through a window). In 1968, during the upheaval surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., rioters made it within a couple blocks of the White House.

But I knew, even as I did this, that the parallels would be inexact — and that we were now lurching into territory where the past would prove a sketchy map at best.

As a high school teacher of U.S. history, I have had a growing unease in recent years about the relevance of my vocation. For most of my teaching career, I’ve felt reasonably confident that I performed a useful civic function in giving my charges a basic core narrative about the American past — one that included justifiable pride, even confidence, in a nationhood constituted on a set of ideals that could point the way toward the better angels of our natures.

Yes, of course, that story was full of repeated failures to live up to those ideals, whose flawed logic was evident from the very start, evident in British essayist Samuel Johnson’s 1775 observation “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes” and Abigail Adams’s injunction to her husband to “remember the ladies” as he worked with Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. But there was always just enough refusal to give in to cynicism among our nation’s leaders and citizens that we have been able to narrow, if never entirely close, that gap between ideal and reality.

Events of the last year, heightened still further by those of the last week that are moving toward a second impeachment of President Donald Trump have me worried about what’s been termed a legitimacy crisis in our country, one that risks finally severing our confidence in the nation’s ideals.

Contemporary U.S. history teachers spend a lot of time and teaching energy focusing on the nation’s shortcomings — and for good reasons. They spend less time and attention on what kinds of authority deserve our deference and support. Indeed, even asking that question arouses suspicion in an educational establishment whose moral imagination is defined by the primacy of equality as an ideal (one that often overlooks our deepest longings for distinction).


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