It is a long-running joke in my family that if you asked Uncle Charlie a question that was even remotely connected to history, you’d better settle in for a long conversation. The scene might go like this: Sitting in his Iowa City kitchen, I’d ask, “Uncle Charlie, is it true Herbert Hoover was from Iowa?” He’d get a glint in his eye and walk swiftly to one of the countless bookshelves spread throughout the house. I’d follow along as he collected a reference book, an atlas, and perhaps a biography or two. Soon, he’d have the books spread out on the dining room table and he’d be enthusiastically explaining that Herbert Hoover was president of the United States from 1929 to 1933.
Within hours, the entire family would be wrapped into an afternoon outing to visit the Herbert Hoover homestead museum in West Branch, Iowa. As is often the case with callow youth, I usually lost interest in the original topic by the time we hit the second reference book. But I’d stick with him because I could see how enthusiastic he was about sharing his love of history.
My uncle was one of those lucky people who was able to turn his passion for the stories of our past into a career. He spent most of his professional life as a history professor at the University of Iowa. Naturally, he came to my mind when I heard a lecture a few weeks ago by the historian David McCullough. McCullough also has a zeal for his subject — coupled by the gift of oratory. The night he spoke, we in the audience had to choose between his talk and the vice presidential debate. As you can imagine, this was not an easy call, but we were not disappointed by our decision.
McCullough strolled to center stage with no podium or notes to guide him and launched into his talk by stating, “Teachers are the most important members of society.” He spoke of influential teachers throughout history and how a president must be both a teacher and a student of history.
As I listened to him, I thought about my uncle and how, when he was in the last months of his life, he started receiving letters from former students saying how much his mentoring had meant to them. I also remembered the spinster schoolteacher who had owned my previous home before me. Every Christmas, I was touched by the slew of holiday cards addressed to her by former students that streamed into my mailbox. This woman, who died with no living family, had left her mark on the world as a beloved teacher.
Our country is in a perplexing place when it comes to our attitudes about education. On one hand, access to learning is the very root of the American dream — of the rags-to-riches mythology. Don’t we believe in our core that every child can make it in this country if he or she is given a good education — which means access to inspiring teachers? And yet, as McCullough put so perfectly in his talk, “It infuriates me to hear one politician mock another politician about the level of their education.”
A deep intellectual grounding usually comes with an understanding of history, science, literature and the law — all of which should guide us as we make decisions about the future. When I go the polls on Nov. 4, I’ll ask myself, who among these candidates might take time to reflect on the complex issues? Who might go to the reference books, consult history and talk to the experts? And who will take their love of learning and make a passion for quality education a cornerstone of their administration?
Jocelyn Hale is the executive director of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. This article originally appeared in the Southwest Journal.
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