Road Signs

Award-winning Teacher Shares His Own Truths

Noel D. Cary

Noel D. Cary, associate professor of history, offered these thoughts to the Holy Cross community on the occasion of receiving the College’s Distinguished Teaching Award at the annual Fall Convocation in October.

When I was 8, I skipped a grade. To make sure I could handle it, my mother arranged for summer tutoring beforehand. Once a week, she drove me to the teacher’s house. The teacher’s son was a little older than I was. As we were leaving one day, I heard this boy playing with his friends. “Heil Hitler!” one of them shouted, and then they all ran around and fired their make-believe guns. I asked my mother what “Heil Hitler” meant. She answered only that I should never, ever say those words, because they were very, very bad.

In 1958, older kids knew from TV and movies that Hitler was the bad guy. In 2008, they still know it. They also know that racism is bad, and the Holocaust was unspeakably horrible. Some of them naively think that all this bad stuff happened once, but “We Have Overcome,” and it can’t happen any more. Others of them take a certain pride in what they take to be the maturity of being more jaded. According to them, what happened under Hitler just keeps happening over and over again, and is not particularly different from one episode to the next.

Both views—the naive and the jaded—are wrong, or, at best, are not useful. The naive view, for all its innocence, is arrogant in its presumption of human perfectability. The jaded view risks being anti-intellectual—for it cuts off any possibility of undertaking a differentiated causal analysis. It presumes, but does not examine, a connection between human intentions and human outcomes. But it is precisely this connection that demands our attention. It is here, for instance, that our Jesuit heritage summons us, in the words of Holy Cross’ mission statement, to maintain a “passion for truth” while being “patient with ambiguity and uncertainty.” Still, the words “patient with ambiguity” may be a bit too abstract for many undergraduates who enter a college-level history course for only the first or second time. It helps if the idea can be reinforced through a classroom experience.

Here’s an example. In my class, when we study the Nazis, all of us become ordinary citizens of Germany. I don’t have to say anything in order for this to happen. I don’t announce that we will go back in time. I don’t say, “Now, let’s try to think like they thought.” I don’t have to. I just walk around the room. And I greet each student. And—sorry, Mom—I do say, “Heil Hitler!” But I say it very blandly. I try not to reveal whether or not I really mean it. After all, you never know who might report you to the Gestapo for not saying it! But then, when I come to one student (chosen at random), I carefully avoid having to say those words. I do this by crossing to the other side of the classroom. That way, I don’t have to greet this person at all. Not greeting that person, I tell myself, is a way of sparing that person. You see, it would be insulting and embarrassing to say “Heil Hitler” to someone who is Jewish. So I avoid this someone, not because I am a Nazi, and not even because I hate Jews. Rather, I do so (I tell myself) out of respect for my neighbor, the hypothetically Jewish student. Embarrassed to insult her, I gradually, gradually drop all human contact with her. I de-socialize her. I turn her into a non-person. When I am done, she will be ripe for the slaughter. Later, I will say, and I will believe, that I had nothing to do with it.

As in most disciplines, a good historical argument involves two things: analysis, which must be rigorous; and synthesis, which must be imaginative. My job is to show students how the analysis of evidence can lead one to glimpse and to evaluate the variety of ways in which historical developments can be truthfully put together. Evidence can tell multiple true stories, but not every story is true. Classroom discussions are often about discerning the difference.

To make progress toward that goal, students need to develop a willingness to try out ideas. This can be scary during a rigorous discussion. Lectures cannot replace such discussion. But they can prove facilitative—both substantively and stylistically. By being somewhat of a ham when I lecture, I expose my own vulnerability. In my experience, students respond by taking more intellectual risks during discussions—even though they know that their contributions will undergo close analytical scrutiny.

My point is not that other teachers should emulate what I do. Rather, it is that each of us must recognize, believe in, and never stop building on, our own authentic teaching strengths. Furthermore, those very strengths often come from what we might perceive to be our weaknesses. Frankly, one reason I am a show-off behind the lectern is because I am shy. The only way I can deal with my vulnerability at all is to expose myself, full speed ahead. But if turning supposed weaknesses into strengths works for us, then how much more true is this for our un-formed students? What they need is someone to believe in them, and to help them see what those hidden strengths are. And that is where we really come in.

What this means above all is that we must never underestimate them. We must never be afraid to push and to challenge them, for it would be patronizing and condescending to do otherwise. Let us therefore—in front of them—“problematize” our own, most cherished beliefs. For what our students deserve from us is not unambiguous simplifications or do-good formulas. If we provide those things, then our students will quickly outgrow us—for it is they who are restless, and searching, and changing. How we do better by them is both substantive and methodological. Substantively, our calling—to improve ever so slightly on the mission statement—is the passion for truths (plural). Methodologically, it entails developing enough “patience with ambiguity” so that we can actually think, with some sophistication, about this world’s imperfections.
The diversity that marks Holy Cross has to do less with demographics than with the range of intellectual challenges and simple human gifts that each of us is prepared to put on the table. As teachers, we are well aware of what we owe our mentors. And we know that we’ve not always told them so. The reason I am speaking to you today is because, from among the many who are at least as deserving, I have had the extraordinary good fortune to have had students and colleagues who took the trouble to articulate why they thought that I should receive this honor. There can perhaps be no more humbling, more fulfilling joy for a teacher than to have been granted such an explicit moment of affirmation. So if I may, let me pass along to my junior colleagues a discovery of mine:

Even if no one has yet told you to your face, you may be sure that you are having an impact, beyond anything that you can imagine. And that impact is the product, above all, of your own authentic, distinctive, idiosyncratic strengths—the ones you inherently have, and that no one can shape for you or take away from you. Each of us teaches from our own strengths. Believe in yours. Put them out there. Expose yourselves. Your students may not tell you, and they may not even yet know, how much this gift of yours means to them. But it is a gift that they will not forget.