Why I teach
by Nancy Bristow
teach because I believe in the transformative possibilities
of learning and because I believe that a just future can be
achieved only through our commitment to meaningful
education for all. The world we live in today is not a simple
place. A glance back at 2012 makes clear that we face complex
and sometimes fearsome challenges in the days to come. Think,
for instance, of the civil conflict raging in Syria and the war
in Afghanistan, of the sluggish worldwide economy and the
school-to-prison pipeline, of the shootings at a movie theater
in Colorado and an elementary school in Connecticut and the
violent deaths of too many young people in our cities, of super-
storm Sandy and the world’s melting glaciers, of the killing of
Trayvon Martin and the growing distance between rich and poor.
I am daily confounded by the trials and traumas so many human
beings endure. Our problems demand truly creative, perhaps
revolutionary, solutions.
I teach
, then, because such solutions require us to un-
derstand our present in all its complexity, a kind of comprehen-
sion possible only if we first make sense of our past. At the most
fundamental level I believe history, all history, matters, providing
us with the essence of our humanity through our knowledge of
those who, for better and for worse, built the world in which we
live. Knowing our history helps us to recognize how the lives we
inhabit in the present took their shape in the past, to see the roots
of today’s differences and disparities in the relational dynamics of
power in earlier eras. Embracing such knowledge prepares us to
act as citizens in a democracy, to choose with intentionality and
mindfulness our nation’s path to the future.
Certainly such knowledge is not always welcome. In her
magisterial work of fiction, the novel
, Toni Morrison
tells the story of Sethe, a woman who resisted the horrors of
slavery with stunning courage yet could not escape her memory
of them. Despite Sethe’s efforts at “keeping the past at bay,” her
commitment to the “serious work of beating back the past,”
she was haunted, both literally and figuratively, by an intoler-
able biography unwilling to be forgotten. Like Sethe, the United
States carries a history that demands acknowledgment, but too
often we attempt to deny its persistent power. And as another of