All of the sophomore boys knew: Ms. Dewey was not to be trifled with. In my memory she stands about 5’2”, though it’s possible she was taller. Whatever her exact height, she was a slight woman, but she had a look that could stop you in your tracks. The Dewey glare was the stuff of legend, and we quickly came to realize that the glare was actually a warning. Only a fool would persist after receiving it, and if by chance she had to open her mouth to put a stop to your foolishness, the worst thing one could do was attempt to match wits with her. Her wits—unlike yours—were razor-sharp, and when challenged, she took no prisoners. Sometimes, you would see a friend in the hallway between classes, and from his downcast eyes and mopey walk, you just knew. He had run afoul of Dewey.

I start with this description because to understand the impact that Elaine Dewey had on me, I think it’s essential to understand this side of her. But it’s also important to note that she had a wonderful sense of humor and a laugh that, despite her diminutive size, could fill a room. I remember her, more than any of my other high school teachers, beginning class on Mondays by asking us about our weekends and regularly sharing what she called “cocktail party information.” Know this stuff, she would say, so you don’t end up looking stupid someday. She was tough, but it was also clear that she cared.

One of my strongest memories from sophomore English was her telling us that she was a competitive powerlifter—and a champion powerlifter at that. When she was feeling mirthful, a clearly distinguishable form of the glare might also be accompanied by a snarling but only semi-serious threat: “I could bench press you.” We believed her. Amongst 15 year-olds with meathead tendencies, this provided instant credibility. Looking back, I wonder if this biographical tidbit was true. I have no specific reason to doubt it, except that as a teacher, I’ve come to realize the power of a little mystery. I’ve never told my students a lie about myself, but they have at times chosen to believe myths that I did not see fit to correct.

With one exception (more on that later), I don’t ever recall having a one-on-one conversation with Ms. Dewey during my time as a student. Her class was not my favorite (it was hard), but more than any other teacher I ever had, Elaine Dewey changed my life.

First and foremost, she taught me to write. Of course, I already knew the basics when I got to English 10, but Ms. Dewey taught me to sweat the details—to revise, and revise again, until the words fit together just the way I wanted them to. This, I have come to know, is what writing really is. The best writers do not simply have a gift; they have a work ethic. Ms. Dewey drilled us on the parts of speech, made us diagram sentences until we were blue in the face, and assigned us the longest essay we had ever written to that point. However, she also let us choose the topic: I wrote about John Rocker and his First Amendment right to voice his deplorable views. (It seems I was a civil libertarian even from an early age.)

I actually believe that I do my best thinking through writing. (I have tried to impress upon my students this benefit of writing, but it has negative consequences, too. Occasionally, an e-mail that should probably be 2-3 sentences can sometimes take me an hour to write as I end up going through several revisions… but at the end of that hour, I’ve got an e-mail that I’m damn proud of.) Though I don’t do it as often as I would like, I have come to love writing, and without Ms. Dewey’s class, I’m not sure that would have happened.

Ms. Dewey’s most powerful lesson, though, came two years after I took her class. By that time, she had moved into an administrative job, but she remained the faculty sponsor of the National Honor Society. About midway through my senior year, when I had already been admitted to college, I started to slack off. I enjoyed making people laugh, and with the pressure of college decisions off my shoulders, I began to relish the role of class clown. I did enough to keep my grades decent, but I also did stupid things to make sure everyone knew that I didn’t really care that much about school.

My physics teacher, Mrs. Friel, bore the brunt of my nonsense. Once, I opened the window of our first-floor classroom and snuck out while we watched a movie. I walked all the way around the school to the front door, and straight back to Mrs. Friel’s room. (I was rebellious… but only a little bit.) When I walked in, Mrs. Friel said, “I don’t remember giving you permission to leave!” I nodded at the window and said, “You didn’t.” My classmates loved it; Mrs. Friel, not so much. Another time, I snuck in the same window during my lunch period and sat in the back of the room talking with a friend during his class. Several minutes passed, and when Mrs. Friel finally noticed me, she yelled (angrier than I had ever seen her), “Matt! Get out!” So I went right back out the window. I didn’t mean any disrespect by my actions, but they clearly showed a lack of respect.

As these kinds of shenanigans began to pile up, I received a note from Ms. Dewey out of the blue, instructing me to report to her office after school. Uh oh. I knew immediately that I was in trouble, though I did not (in my thick-skulled adolescence) necessarily understand what exactly had caused this.

When I walked into Ms. Dewey’s office, I was expecting the glare. To my surprise, I didn’t get it right away. She was working on something and, barely looking up, said, “Have a seat.” She continued working. This was strange. It made me think that perhaps I was wrong; perhaps I wasn’t in trouble at all. The longer I sat there, the more I convinced myself. Finally, she put down her pen and looked up. “I assume you know why you’re here,” she said with a smile.

She was smiling! I was right! Maybe this was actually a good meeting! She was going to congratulate me for getting into my top college early decision!

“No, ma’am,” I said. (After moving to Pennsylvania, I had more or less stopped using ma’am and sir, but I still reverted instinctively to them in times like these, as if my brain recognize that danger lurked just around the corner.)

And there it was. The glare. The smile vanished, and in an instant, I knew that I had been deceiving myself. This was no congratulatory chat; I had crossed a line, and worse, given the opportunity, I had not owned up to it. “I’ve heard that you’ve been cutting up in class,” she practically spat at me through clenched teeth. (Note: Her teeth were probably not clenched, and there was probably no spitting, but it felt that way to me.)

My sophomore self, accustomed to interacting with Ms. Dewey on a daily basis, would have dropped my head, mumbled an apology, and taken my punishment right then. But my senior self was cocky. It was almost an out-of-body experience. I knew what I should do, and yet my mouth kept moving. Scared out of my wits, I nevertheless attempted to deploy them.

“Who told you that?” I asked incredulously. Attempting to give a little in order to get a lot, I made a partial confession: “I mean, I sometimes joke around in Mrs. Friel’s class, but it’s not—”

Her eyes narrowed and she cut me off. “I’ve heard it from three different teachers. Word is, you’ve been acting like a jerk ever since you got into U-V-A.”

I dropped my head. I mumbled an apology. I took my punishment.

In that five-minute conversation, Ms. Dewey set me on a different path. I don’t think I would have framed it this way then, but Ms. Dewey saw through my facade and cut me down to size. I have come to realize, over time, that pride is one of my vices, and looking back, Ms. Dewey was telling me as much. “You’re no better than anyone else,” she told me without ever saying those words. My actions were disrespectful of my teachers, and deep down, I knew that, even if I was too self-absorbed at that point to realize it.

Ms. Dewey told me in characteristically blunt fashion that she thought I was wasting my potential and that it didn’t matter if I was going to a top college if I continued behaving that way. But, if I was willing to swallow my pride, I would have a second chance. I was made to apologize—in person—to each of my teachers. I was made to do additional community service hours. And I was made to understand that if Ms. Dewey so much as heard my name mentioned by another teacher for discipline issues, I would be removed from National Honor Society faster than I could sneak out a classroom window.

Strangely, it was in this moment that I realized how much I cared about Ms. Dewey’s opinion. Just as Ms. Dewey wore a “mask” of toughness, I cultivated a “devil-may-care” persona. In that moment, though, I realized that I cared. As terrified as I was (especially of my parents finding out), I remember being most upset about the fact that I had let Ms. Dewey down. I’m sure that I was not a perfect angel for the remainder of my senior year, but I was definitely more self-aware.

These days, when my non-teacher friends ask me about classroom discipline, I tell them that it’s the students who are most like me who give me the biggest headaches—the ones who are capable but either don’t care or, worse, try to turn everything into a joke. Those are often the ones I butt heads with, and when I do, I am conscious of Ms. Dewey’s influence on me. (When I went back to my high school to visit in college, I remember telling one of my teachers that I had decided to pursue a career in the classroom. “You know, Matt,” she said with a chuckle. “You reap what you sow.” Truer words were never spoken.)

I don’t know if I pull off the glare as well as Ms. Dewey did, but I am not above a show of righteous anger at times. Even so, I try to leave room for the second chance. I certainly felt judged by Ms. Dewey in that moment, but I needed to. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing her, but I was too arrogant and self-absorbed at 17 to recognize it on my own. Still, I would hate to think that she formed her lasting opinion of me in that moment.

In those challenging conversations, which happen all the time between teachers and students, I try to keep this in mind. Much is made of “character education” these days, and there are entire “character curricula” available for purchase. There is a place for well-designed programs like these, but at the end of the day, though, character education comes down to individual teachers setting a high standard of appropriate behavior and caring enough about their students to hold them to it.

That’s what Ms. Dewey taught me. And that’s why I still revere her, almost 20 years later.

That’s also why I revised this post many (too many) times before finally pressing “Publish.”

Advertisements

I’m currently reading Sean Wilentz’s (relatively) new book The Politicians & The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics. It is a timely read, and though I’m only a single chapter in, it is proving to be a psychological balm in these polarized times. In short, Wilentz’s thesis (or at least half of it) is that while Americans have, since nearly the earliest days of the republic, longed for an end to partisan rancor, parties are in fact a vital institution for making democracy work in a nation as large and diverse as the United States. “The American dream of politics without conflict . . . has a history as old as American politics,” he writes (3). Yet fierce partisan politics, “although often manipulated and abused, has been Americans’ most effective vehicle for democratic social and political reform” (4).

In his first chapter, Wilentz neatly traces the ebbs and flows of what he terms “postpartisanship” from Washington’s Farewell Address up to the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Among the conclusions he draws from this broad sweep of history are that postpartisanship takes two forms: on one hand, it represents a genuine dissatisfaction with political parties and their attendant friction; on the other, it has been co-opted by one party or the other as a cudgel for attacking their political opponents. “The rage for a modern postpartisanship,” Wilentz argues, “has failed to distinguish between a sincere if wrong-headed antiparty rhetoric and attacking parties as a partisan ploy—distinct uses of antipartisan politics that have sometimes overlapped” (4).

Though he does not emphasize it (at least not in the first chapter), Wilentz also hints at a class element underlying postpartisanship. Washington’s Farewell Address, in his eyes, was not simply a disinterested warning against the dangers of party. Though we prefer to remember him as a paragon of virtue (which we may unconsciously associate with objectivity and, thus, postpartisanship), Washington had a political ideology. He pursued one particular vision for America (that is, Hamilton’s, as exemplified by the fight over the bank) but viewed with disdain the hostile conflict brewing between Hamilton and Jefferson. According to Wilentz, Washington’s attack on parties was designed to malign the (Jeffersonian) “low demagogues who fomented” partisanship, but it “was also genuinely motivated by a patrician ideal of politics without parties” (6). Washington’s critique of parties, in other words, reflected his genteel sensibilities. (Of course, it was also easier for a man elected unanimously to see parties as unnecessarily divisive.)

Later, Wilentz describes Progressive era postpartisanship in a similar way. “Driven by severe class anxieties, incapable in the North of formally excluding the poor and the uneducated from politics, [liberal reformers] aimed instead to change other rules of the political game. By founding various independent clubs and quasi-learned societies, they sought to educate the electorate properly. Instead of denouncing parties outright, the elite liberals, with their style of ‘independency,’ appeared to be inside the parties but above politics. The independent style rejected the old party flim-flam—including a stridently partisan press—in favor of a cooler, more detached politics, free of the old emotional partisanship” (20). This would appear to have relevance in our own time. Postpartisanship is not the exclusive property of one political party or the other, but rather of the “elite.”

In other words, legitimate anti-party feeling might, in fact, be a bourgeois tendency, reflective of a deep-seated aversion to conflict and social “ugliness.” In any conflict, after all, elites are the ones with more to lose. And when those elites do lose power, attacking partisanship becomes a convenient way to re-assert themselves without appearing overly self-serving. Thus, postpartisanship is fundamentally conservative. Or, as Wilentz puts it, “The antiparty current is by definition undemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters” (28). To achieve a politics that is free from conflict, we must necessarily limit the number of voices and perspectives. By maligning parties—that is, the means by which millions of diverse voices are organized and made audible—we move away from the nation’s democratic ideals.

For the title of his first chapter (“The Postpartisan Style in American Politics”), Wilentz draws on Richard Hofstadter, who famously wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter’s work has received renewed interest in recent years, which should come as no surprise given our president’s tendency to engage in conspiratorial thinking that fires up his populist base. So is Donald Trump the latest manifestation of postpartisanship?

In running against “politicians” and promising to “drain the swamp,” Trump tapped into a feeling that only an outsider could possibly represent the interests of “the people.” His campaign certainly looked much different from those of Obama, but he also appealed to people who viewed the Republican Party “establishment” as hopelessly out of touch with average Americans. The fact that Trump has not yet drained the swamp suggests that his approach was perhaps postpartisanship of the disingenuous sort—an attack on parties as a partisan ploy. And for as much as he lambasts them, Trump is a member of the elite. The tax bill currently under consideration reveals the limits of his (and the GOP’s) populism.

All of this reminds me of an article I read by Joe Scarborough, written in the days after this year’s gubernatorial elections. According to Scarborough, some might interpret Democratic victories as “a political primal scream aimed at President Trump and his dangerous excesses. Some may even conclude that a Democratic sweep of next year’s midterms will follow along with the speedy impeachment of Trump. Then, surely, reason and order will return to the business of running the United States. Unfortunately, that pipe dream ignores the more profound meaning of this week’s election results: The shellacking Republicans took proves again just how unmoored American politics has become in the 21st century.”

Scarborough then offers, much like Wilentz, a broad overview of American political history. “Democrats and Republicans,” he writes, “have held a duopoly over Washington since Franklin Pierce got elected president in 1852. For most of that time, both parties saw their governing majorities rise and fall over the course of entire generations.” That is changing, however:

“[T]he political alignments that once endured decades of change have begun collapsing in two-year intervals. In 2004, Karl Rove spoke of a permanent Republican majority. Just over two years later, Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House. In 2008, many hailed Barack Obama’s winning coalition as a new Democratic majority, built on a well-educated and demographically diverse coalition. Fast-forward two years and the tea party laid waste to all previous political presumptions. . . . [In 2016,] Trump destroyed the Democratic establishment, but only after reducing the Republican political machine to rubble. Now, less than a year after seizing control of all branches of government, Trumpism is in full retreat.”

I’m not sure I agree with his last statement, but that’s not the point. In Scarborough’s view, “The fact that Trump’s GOP was beaten so badly . . . proves again that voters are voting against political parties instead of voting for inspiring leaders.”

Is this what comes of postpartisanship? Is this, in fact, the root cause of our seemingly broken political system? Like many others, I’ve long worried that the partisan divide is the cause of our problems. In only 20 pages or so, Wilentz turns that conventional wisdom on its head.

We may be in the midst of a political realignment, but Wilentz suggests that we may also be in the midst or a reorientation with regard to partisanship. In the year since Trump’s victory, naked partisanship appears to be on the rise, and as he points out, “The Tea Party activists who emerged in 2010, for all their proclaimed alienation from both major parties . . . did not whine about the evils of partisanship, they worked on it and, with great success, used the party system to advance their hard-right agenda as a wing of the Republican Party” (29).

I noted in my first paragraph that Wilentz’s book is proving to be a psychological balm. Over the past year, I have found myself turned off by all the bitterness, but I also wonder to what extent that is a middle-class predilection on my part. Is it possible that the solution is, in fact, to get down in the gutter and slug it out against one’s partisan foes? This, in turn, raises a related question: Is it partisan bickering that actually disgusts me, or was my desire for “harmony” really just a desire for the forces of change to keep their voices down?

I still have 300+ pages to read in Wilentz’s book. Perhaps another post will be warranted.

When I was 13, my family moved from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to suburban Philadelphia. It was, suffice it to say, something of a culture shock. Most people who know me now are surprised to learn it, but as a child, I did have a southern accent, and in Pennsylvania, I was the only kid in school who said “y’all” and “fixin’ to.” Heads turned, as you can imagine. Like most young teens, I was extremely self-conscious, and my Mississippi mannerisms made me stand out like a sore thumb. Thankfully, my experience with Coach Merrill (see my last post) had turned me into a decent baseball player, and among adolescent males, athletic ability confers tremendous social benefits.

I didn’t realize it right away, but as it turned out, I had stepped into a fairly competitive environment, and my skills were in demand. Unlike in Mississippi, the Little League teams in Pennsylvania stayed together for multiple years, and so there were longer-term rivalries. In particular, the coaches of the Seminoles and the Comanche (all of the Senior League teams were named for Indian tribes) had become something like arch-nemeses, and there was a certain intensity around their games. Almost immediately after moving into the area, I began hearing stories. One of my friends, whose name was also Matt, played for the Seminoles, and he talked about the Comanche like Red Sox fans talk about the Yankees; they were the “Evil Empire.” As the spring season approached, Matt told me that his coach wanted me to tank the tryout so that he could be sure to pick me up. I looked forward to playing with Matt, and so I was on board with the plan, but when I mentioned this to my mother, she responded—not surprisingly—by telling me that under no circumstances was I to give any less than my very best effort.

Truth be told, I didn’t have a great tryout. I’d like to say that I listened to my mother, but the truth is that I probably split the difference. I didn’t deliberately blow it, but I certainly underwhelmed during the tryout, which was held in the school gym owing to some unseasonably cold weather. The draft was later that week, but I felt confident that I would soon be joining Matt on the Seminoles.

For some reason, my mom was late picking me up that day, and so as I stood outside the gym waiting for her to arrive, I worked on my swing—probably practicing Joe Brockhoff’s “Super 8” hitting system, pausing at each stage of the swing to check my mechanics. (Like I said, Coach Merrill had taught me that baseball was a craft to be perfected.) I was locked in, not paying much attention to my surroundings, so I was caught off guard when I heard someone call out from a car, “Hey, what’s your name again?” It took me a couple of seconds to realize that it was Eric Poppel, coach of the dreaded Comanche, leader of the Evil Empire. “Uhh,” I stammered. “I’m Matt Edmonds.” “Great,” he said. “I’m going to draft you. I’ll be in touch later this week.” And then he drove away.

Wait… what just happened? “Oh great,” I remember thinking.

Actually, it was. In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened. I ended up playing for “Poppel” (as all of his players called him) for two years, and though he turned out to be a very different kind of coach from Steve Merrill, he made a tremendous impact on my life, especially at that stage.

Poppel was fairly knowledgeable about the game, but looking back, I don’t think he was a tactical or strategic genius. Instead, his wizardry lay in motivation. After I got to know him, I would have run through a brick wall for him, and I think most of my teammates felt the same way. In fact, friends of mine who played on other teams (not the Seminoles, mind you) talked about how they wished they could play for Poppel and the Comanche. (Oh, and during my two years, I don’t think we ever lost to the Seminoles.)

I didn’t have a good read on how old Poppel was, but in my memory, he was probably in his late 20s, or early 30s—about 15-20 years older than us players. At that point, he was unmarried and had no kids of his own, and he could be crude, even inappropriate at times in his interactions with 14-15 year old boys. I remember him once showing up to a game clearly hungover. When someone bolder than me asked him why he looked so rough, he spoke openly about being out too late partying. I’m sure that my mom, had she known some of the topics of conversation, would not have approved. But to a teenage boy, that was the allure. Poppel was “cool,” and he treated us like equals. In so doing, he forged a bond with his players.

Poppel, without ever being direct about it, encouraged us to take ownership of and leadership in the team. I remember being called to the phone by my mother on several occasions. As I took the receiver, I would ask who was on the line. “It’s your baseball coach,” she said. (Eventually, this became common enough that my mother shortened the exchange: “Matt!” she would call out as she set the receiver down on the counter. “Poppel’s on the phone!”) If it was in-season, he would call to talk to get my thoughts about the lineup. In the off-season, he would solicit input on how we could get the team together for a practice. I recognize now that Poppel was probably calling a lot of the guys, and I honestly don’t remember how much he ever took my advice. But that’s beside the point; the point is that he asked. He was the first coach who ever did. He was the first adult who didn’t treat me like a kid.

It was just a Little League team, but Poppel tried to run it like a year-round program. He wanted players who were committed, and so in retrospect, it makes perfect sense why he drafted me. (In fact, in one of our first conversations, he told me as much: “Honestly, you didn’t look great in the tryout, but any kid who is willing to work on his swing the way you were is probably gonna be good. That’s why I picked you. Don’t let me down.”) Poppel was a master bullsh*tter, but he also didn’t sugarcoat things. He had a way of making you feel important, but he would also tell you straight up if you sucked that day.

Even when he was blunt, I never doubted that Poppel was behind me. His actions spoke as loudly as his words, as when he would meet me at the field to work on my speed or my catching skills one-on-one. (Just as with Coach Merrill, I still use some of the drills that Poppel taught me with my players today.) He wrote a workout for me to do on my own, and he would call me to make sure I was keeping up with it.

As a side gig, he organized sports card/memorabilia shows in Philadelphia, and he would often “hire” me to do all sorts of odd jobs on those days. It wasn’t exactly backbreaking labor, but the point was that I had to show up on time and be responsible for accomplishing my tasks. That was my first “job” aside from chores around the house, and I think it prepared me for holding a job throughout much of high school. I fear that many kids, especially those from upper income tiers, don’t get that kind of valuable experience today.

As I approached the age where I would no longer be eligible to play for the Comanche, our conversations began to change. Rather than baseball, Poppel began to talk to me more about the future: about school and college and career choices—the path ahead. He encouraged me to keep working hard in every area. He was working to get his own company off the ground at that point, and he told me that I’d have a job there after college if I wanted it. I believe he was sincere in that promise.

As an educator, I’ve come to realize that there is a time in a typical teenage boy’s life when his day-to-day connection with his parents wanes, and when he reaches that point, he needs a mentor to keep him moving in a positive direction. In many ways, Poppel was that person for me. He recognized potential in me, and he encouraged it. He taught me to believe in myself, preached the value of hard work, and made me believe that I could be a leader.

I’ve lost touch with Poppel over the years, but this Thanksgiving, I have reason to be grateful for many things. Not the least of those things is that, when I was 14 years old, Eric Poppel saw through a mediocre tryout and caught me honing my craft… even though I didn’t want him to. It’s funny how life works out sometimes.

In my last post, about my parents and their influence, I noted that my stepfather, Bob, coached several of my Little League teams. But he wasn’t really a baseball coach. He knew more about the sports he had played as a child: basketball and football—and ice hockey, which wasn’t much played in sweltering South Mississippi, where we lived. As I got older, Bob recognized his limitations and backed away from coaching baseball.

When I was 12 (I’m pretty sure), I played for the Marlins, coached by Steve Merrill. I already loved baseball by the time that Coach Merrill entered my life, but looking back, I believe he is the person who turned that strong interest into an enduring passion. Coach Merrill taught me that baseball is a craft—something to be mastered. He taught me that you don’t simply go out there and throw a ball around; there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. He showed me how to grip the baseball across the seams so that it would fly faster and straighter. At first base, he showed me how to use the corners of the base to receive throws from various points on the infield. Many of the things he taught me, I now teach my players the same way.

Coach Merrill’s approach to teaching the game jibed perfectly with my parents’ expectations for me. As I noted, they expected me to play hard and listen to my coaches, and in Coach Merrill, I had found a coach worth listening to. In fact, I couldn’t get enough of his practices.

More than any other individual, Coach Merrill opened up the intricacies of the game to me. After that season with the Marlins, baseball was an infinitely more complex sport, and I realized how much I had to learn. It was probably around this time that I began accumulating books detailing everything from the proper footwork for turning a double play at second base to how hitters fare in various counts (e.g., a 2-0 count versus an 0-2 count). I’m sure I didn’t understand them all at the time, but this is undoubtedly what set me on the path toward becoming a baseball coach. I even remember buying The Physics of Baseball at age 12 because it promised to teach me why a curveball curves. (I thought that if I could perhaps get a handle on the physics of the thing, I could hit it better. Unfortunately, I still can’t make much sense of that book, but it remains on the shelf.)

Coach Merrill had two sons, Tanner and Jace, who were roughly my age. Tanner was in my class at school and played on the Marlins. Jace was a year or two younger, so he wasn’t on the team, but he often came to practices. Both were extraordinarily athletic, and I remember being jealous of their talent, but they got away with nothing. (I also played basketball for Coach Merrill one season, and I have a hazy memory of Jace, who was one of the best players on the team despite being the youngest, taking a crazy shot or doing something otherwise selfish. At the next whistle, he found himself on the bench.) Coach Merrill taught his sons to take advantage of their talent and strive to be great, but he had no patience for embarrassing others or using their ability solely for their own benefit.

Coach Merrill was an Air Force chaplain, but for a “man of the cloth,” he was no prig. (It’s worth noting here that at that age, I wasn’t aware of what he did beyond knowing that he was in the Air Force; he never talked about his religious beliefs or his work, and I probably assumed he was a pilot like everyone else in the Air Force.) He did promote good sportsmanship, and I believe he had his priorities very much in order when it came to winning and losing, but he also knew there came a point when you had to stand up for your team. I remember him going out to argue a call during one game, and while he argued with the umpire, Tanner told a story (perhaps embellished) about his father once getting ejected from an older brother’s game. As I remember the story, the game had remained close despite his team’s lukewarm effort, and at one point, the umpire made a bad-though-not-egregious call. Coach Merrill seized the opportunity. He supposedly looked at Tanner, who must have been 8 or 10, and said “Go get in the car” before promptly going out and getting himself ejected.

At that age, I probably just thought it was “cool” that he had gotten tossed like Bobby Cox, who managed the Braves, my favorite team as a child. (For what it’s worth, Coach Merrill did not get ejected from our game that day.) It would be easy to use this as an example of a man’s “temper” or poor sportsmanship, but reflecting on this story now, I see something deeper possibly at play. As a coach (and teacher), I’ve learned that there are times when what your team (or class) needs to hear is “I’m behind you, but I can’t do it for you. Now go out there and win this game without me.” In a way, this is the opposite of the hackneyed “Win one for the Gipper” speech, wherein players are asked to play hard for someone else.

In the end, it comes down to our vision for kids. Our job is to teach them well, light a fire, and then have them go out and do it for themselves… whatever “it” happens to be: baseball, school, a career, etc. Coach Merrill did that for me, and in spite of the fact that I have seen or spoken to him in over 20 years, the lessons live on and the fire still burns.

At my school, we have a regular meeting where faculty come together to share thoughts and ideas related to the classroom. The facilitator seeks input for potential conversation topics, and I recently proposed “civic education across the disciplines.”

I could be wrong, but my sense is that teachers in disciplines other than the “social studies” disciplines sometimes see “civic education” (that is, preparing students for citizenship) as beyond the scope of their expertise and/or job description. I thought it would be worth having a conversation about this.

As we, like schools everywhere, attempt to grapple with the tenor of conversations outside our walls, our head of school gave a talk earlier this week about the importance of civil conversations. Coming on the heels of this talk, my colleague quite understandably transposed my suggestion of civic education to civil education when she e-mailed the faculty asking for a vote on possible topics.

This prompted an e-mail exchange which got me thinking about the relationship between the two. Here’s where I stand (for now):

You can have a civil educational environment while doing very little to prepare students for civic life, but you can’t provide civic education if the atmosphere is not civil. It is vital (in my view) to address civic issues across the disciplines, which creates an opportunity (an obligation?) to teach civility school-wide as well. In fact, it is more important to teach civility if a particular lesson has an explicit civic component.

Consider the following example of “essential questions” for a science class: How should we, as citizens, evaluate the various scientific claims made about climate change? To what extent is there “scientific consensus” on the subject?

Though I can’t say for sure, I would think that establishing strong norms for civil conversation would be more urgent for such a lesson than it would be for one on, say, gravity. (Of course, as a history teacher I can’t help but note that the question of gravity was once a matter of urgent civic import as well. The fact that it isn’t any longer may, in fact, reveal something about the nature of scientific discovery and consensus.)

I definitely believe that disciplines should support civic education, but the more I think about it, the more I think civic education has the potential to reinforce the disciplines as well.

Last month, Brandon Busteed, the Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development at Gallup, published an op-ed titled “Higher Education: Drop the Term ‘Liberal Arts.’” Readers might be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a sensationalist title designed to generate web traffic, but no—it very succinctly captures Busteed’s argument. He reveals his thinking most clearly in his second paragraph, where he writes, “‘Liberal’ is politically charged, and ‘arts’ has a negative connotation regarding improving graduates’ job prospects, which is the main reason why Americans and currently enrolled college students value higher education.”

Let me see if I have this right: Because some Americans don’t understand that the term “liberal” has multiple meanings, and because they have grown accustomed to seeking career training and calling it “education,” we should cheapen an idea that has served us well for millennia? I’m not buying it. There is a lot of garbage on the internet these days, but it’s been a while since I read something so wrong-headed.

To be fair, Busteed is very clear that he is not criticizing the notion of liberal arts education per se. Rather, he focuses on a “branding” challenge. “Putting the words liberal and arts together is a branding disaster,” he writes, “and the most effective way to save or defend the liberal arts may be to change what we call them.”

The problem with Busteed’s claim, as I see it, is that he gives in so easily to the anti-intellectualism that currently pervades our culture. He is certainly correct in that some Americans—perhaps even many, though it’s hard to say since he only cites survey data from Republicans—see “liberal” as a loaded term. And my own conversations with my students confirm that many do view “education” as a means to a very specific end (that is, getting a job). Unfortunately, these are egregious misunderstandings of the terms themselves, and they completely miss the point of a liberal arts education. The deep irony here is that those who decry the “liberal arts” as nakedly ideological or useless are probably themselves the most ideological, and possibly the most in need of a liberal arts education.

Let’s examine etymology for a moment. (Early purveyors of the liberal arts, after all, would have read and spoken Latin, so we should have at least as a passing familiarity with it before we degrade their legacy.) The word “education” comes from the Latin educare, for “to teach” as well as educere, for “to lead or draw out.” This latter origin brings to mind for me Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which comes from Republic, itself a work of educational philosophy. Without wading too deep into Plato’s theory of Forms, one purpose of education is to draw students out of the cave of ignorance—to lead them from a world of shadows into the light of reality.

Building on this, the word “liberal” comes from the Latin liber, for “free.” It is the also the root of “liberty,” which was and is the real aim of a liberal arts education: to develop students’ ability to think critically and for themselves. Interestingly, the Latin liber is also translated as “book.” It is no accident that at the very core of the liberal arts are a set of skills—grammar, logic, and rhetoric—that we would today define as “literacy.” It is also no accident that these same skills form the foundation of a healthy republic. (And while we’re on the subject, should we also “re-brand” our republican form of government before the left-wingers work themselves into a tizzy?)

Without the skills and mindsets imparted by a liberal arts education, our democratic republic will fail. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday. As Jefferson famously wrote, “[I]f a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” As he (less famously) also wrote, “[L]aws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education [emphasis mine] worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens.” And before anyone tries to dismiss Jefferson by placing him on our present-day political spectrum, allow me to note that Jefferson was, in point of fact, a Democratic-Republican! (What does that even mean, you ask? Well, a liberal arts education might tell you.)

Contrast Busteed’s stance with the following quotation from the recently published The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance: “[A] liberal arts education—which should be a radical act against dependency and for self-sufficiency—was once conceived of, wrongly, as a luxury that only the rich needed.” The author is Ben Sasse, Republican senator from Nebraska. Clearly, this conservative recognizes the value of a liberal education, and moreover, he has no problem calling it that.

Perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Busteed. After all, he does at least pay lip service to the notion that the liberal arts still have value in preparing students for civic life. (“The liberal arts curriculum is as important today as it was in ancient times,” he acknowledges.) But he also capitulates to the critics of the liberal arts without exposing the serious flaws in their thinking. We need not abandon the liberal arts themselves to lend credence to the notion that they are left-wing and/or useless, and to “re-brand” them in the face of ignorance would do just that.

Personally, I believe there are legitimate conversations to be had about the ideological skewing of the professoriate and the development of illiberal speech codes on college campuses. (I also think these issues are often blown out of proportion by ideologues, but that doesn’t mean the criticisms contain no validity whatsoever.) Likewise, I recognize that the prospect of finding remunerative work after graduation is a very real concern, especially for students from middle-class and working-class backgrounds, many of whom accrued significant debt for the privilege of becoming (like myself) the first in their families to earn a degree.

In fact, I think there are problems with our educational system at basically every level which demand solutions. What I do not think is that abandoning the term “liberal arts” will solve any of these problems. If anything, what we need are more people trained in the liberal arts: free citizens willing and able to read and to think, to question assumptions, to unpack and expose faulty logic, to marshal evidence in support of ideas, and to argue persuasively for a better way forward.

In order to equip more people with these skills, we must make a better case for the liberal arts—not simply “re-brand” them as something different. (And let’s not forget that the data Busteed cites comes amidst a widespread and coordinated emphasis on the so-called STEM fields—what amounts to a massive marketing campaign for one particular vision of education.) What we need today is a broader, more civic-minded vision.

Busteed’s conclusion misses the mark, but his piece does serve a valuable purpose: to alert us to an erosion of confidence in one of the cornerstones of our republic. If we don’t rise to meet this challenge head-on, our educational system will continue to narrow in its focus, and the liberal tradition in education will continue to slip away—with serious consequences for the liberty that we all cherish.

After writing about my grandmother in my first post of this series, the subjects of my second post are perhaps predictable. Along with Maggie, my parents had the greatest hand in shaping me into the man—and the educator—I am today.

My mother and father divorced when I was young; I have no memory of them as a married couple. From what I’ve gathered over the years, it was not an especially happy marriage, so perhaps that is just as well. Following their divorce, there was a period of time when it was just my mother and me, and though my memories of that time are suspect given my age then and the intervening years, they are formative. My hazy recollection of my hard-working single mother humbles me, and even when forced to resort to feeding me Spam, she never failed to make time for me. I loved it when she read to me and once got so excited that I accidentally poked her in the eye with a children’s book cut out in the pointed shape of a cat’s ear, which left her wearing an eye patch. I imagine that she was a more cautious reader after that, but she still imparted a love of reading which I count among the best gifts I have ever received.

A few months before my seventh birthday, she remarried. I remember my stepfather, Bob, from that period as being extraordinarily tall and much more athletically inclined than my mother. (In her defense, my mother did have some athleticism. She used to tell me about playing volleyball and running track in high school, and a few years later, once I had grown a bit and was feeling cocky, I challenged her to a footrace. She demurred, but I continued to pester her. Finally, nearing her wit’s end, she consented. We took our marks, got set… and she promptly left me in the dust, crossing the finish line at least 5 yards ahead of me before limping around the house for a week.) At any rate, Bob was more than willing to throw the football and teach me how to shoot a basketball properly, and later, he would coach several of my Little League teams. On top of his investment of time, the addition of his income opened doors to me that had previously been closed, like trips to the aquarium and Tae Kwon Do classes.

When it came to parenting, my parents were strict. On Diana Baumrind’s spectrum of parenting styles, they were solidly authoritative, sometimes even leaning toward authoritarian. They had firm expectations and set high standards in everything I did. When it came to school, I was expected to earn Honor Roll. When it came to sports, they didn’t care so much about wins and losses, but I was expected to listen to my coaches and play hard. After I finally convinced my mother to let me play tackle football at age 11, I injured my foot in the third week of practice. She watched from the car as I sat on the sideline, and after about half an hour, she stormed across the field to inform me that she didn’t come to watch me sit on my butt. I could either get up and play, or I could get in the car and we could go home. I angrily told her that I would be happy to play if I could walk, and she accused me of being melodramatic. At the end of practice, my coaches carried me to the car. Bob was working late that night, and by the time he got home, I had gone into Maggie’s old room and gotten her walker. Seeing this, Bob decided that we should go to the hospital and get an x-ray. It turned out my foot was broken, and my mother felt terrible. I still like to hold this over her head, but I also take a strange measure of pride in it. My mother—the woman who refused to let me play football for fear that I would get hurt—bawled me out for not playing with a broken foot. Again, high standards.

I can’t remember my parents pushing me to do anything I didn’t want to do, with one noteworthy exception: piano lessons. I had no interest in playing the piano, but as I neared the end of elementary school, I looked forward to joining the middle school band. My parents told me they would happily support me in this, but that I would have to begin taking piano lessons a year in advance in order to learn how to read music. Playing the piano struck me as a fairly sissy thing to do back then, and I said so, but there was no getting around it. I wanted to join the band, so I learned to play the piano. (In fact, I ended up enjoying it and stuck with it long after my parents gave me permission to stop.)

The expectation was clear: If I was going to do something, I was going to do it the right way.

This was reinforced, not surprisingly, through extrinsic motivation, and if Maggie was the good cop, my parents played the bad cops. I don’t recall ever receiving any tangible rewards from my parents for good grades or strong play (though I probably did at times). Excellence, at least an excellent effort, was simply expected, and if I didn’t meet their exacting standards, I could definitely expect a consequence.

They were sticklers for discipline, but my parents were also open to reason. Even as late as my junior year of high school, I had what I believed to be an insanely early bedtime of 10:00pm. Most of my classmates did not have a bedtime at all, and to me, it felt infantilizing. (It was probably also infantilizing to have my mommy wake me up every morning, but I don’t think I complained about that.) Finally, before the start of my senior year, I presented my case to my parents. “I don’t think I should have a bedtime this year,” I started, and already I could sense them beginning to roll their eyes. We’ve been down this road before, they were obviously thinking. Still, I pressed on: “I’m going to be a senior, and next year, I’ll be away at college. I won’t have a bedtime there, and I need to learn how to manage my time myself.” They glanced at each other, and as I continued, I eventually got some nods. My argument seemed to be hitting home!

I don’t remember which one of them spoke first when I eventually rested my case, but I do remember what was said: “That sounds fine, on two conditions. First, we won’t tell you when to go bed, but we also won’t wake you up. You are responsible for getting yourself out of bed in the morning and getting yourself ready for school.” Eagerly I replied, “Of course! What else?” And without missing a beat: “The first time we see a C on your report card, your bedtime is 10:00.”

Occasionally these days, my students or players give me reason to talk about self-discipline. I like to quote John Wooden, who said, “Discipline yourself, and others won’t need to.” Looking back on it, though, my parents’ thinking seemed to be, “We will discipline you so that someday you will be able to.” I’m sure I resented them for it at times, but as an adult, I am so grateful. I occasionally think about my parents when I force myself to go to bed early or pull myself out of bed at 5:45am. I don’t particularly like up before the sun rises, but I have found that I am at my best mentally in the morning, and I often use that time to read or write or prepare for the day. It would be so much easier to sleep as late as possible, but there are things to be done. Be disciplined.

My parents weren’t generally the type to preach, but they did make sure I learned the value of work at an early age. I helped out as a child, whether it was getting something from the pantry as my mother cooked dinner or helping my stepdad as he repaired the fence or built a deck. As a young teen, I had household responsibilities that I “owned,” including feeding the dog daily and mowing the lawn every weekend. Once I was able to drive, I was expected to find a paying job, and I worked pretty much year-round, with the exception of baseball season. Winters were often my busiest time of year, when I would go to school, lift weights with the baseball team after school, and dash home for a quick dinner before reporting to work. Luckily there were often slow periods at my job which allowed me to get homework done.

In addition to progressively developing my work ethic, my parents also took advantage of every opportunity to teach me about accountability and sacrifice. One morning during my senior year, I was running late and came into the school parking lot a bit too fast. (Per our arrangement, they had not woken me up.) In my haste to park and rush into my first period class, I clipped the right rear bumper of a friend’s car. When I told my parents that evening, they made it clear that paying for the damage was my responsibility. I remember being amazed at what it cost—$800 for something that small?!—but I have never had another careless accident like that. I didn’t have enough money saved up to pay for the repairs outright, so they agreed to pay my friends’ parents on the condition that I would pay them back a certain amount from each paycheck until my debt was cleared.

I felt bad about hitting my friend’s car (more accurately, her parents’ car), but at that age, I was most upset about how this would impact my ability to make the rite of passage “Beach Week” trip to Myrtle Beach with my friends after graduation. Of course, I also knew better than to complain to my parents about how “unfair” any of this was. I had created this problem for myself, and it was up to me to solve it. So I devised a plan. My parents usually gave me money (about $15 per week, if memory serves) to buy my lunch at school. Instead, I stopped at the grocery store on the way one morning and bought a box of saltines and a large jar of peanut butter. I kept them in my locker, and for most of my senior year, that was my lunch every day. I pocketed the vast majority of the lunch money my parents gave me and set it aside for Beach Week.

I don’t know if my parents were aware that I was doing this, but I think a small part of them might have been proud. Especially before she remarried, my mother had worked hard and made personal sacrifices to provide for me, and though my sacrifices were nowhere near as noble as hers, I had accepted responsibility for my mistake and I had made a choice that aligned with my priorities. I delayed gratification and sacrificed a full hot lunch for weeks on end, all with the goal of being able to make the trip to the beach with my friends.

In high school, I remember thinking my parents were extremely strict, at least relative to those of many of my classmates’, but looking back, they were not helicopter parents. They set high standards and communicated their expectations clearly, but then they more or less stayed out of my way unless I somehow came up short. I was allowed to make mistakes, and then I was corrected. I was sometimes micromanaged, yes, when it came to things like bedtime, but on the big questions, I was allowed to think for myself—to make my own decisions and then live with the consequences.

Given their unwavering expectation that I attend college, one might have expected them to pressure me to apply to this or that school, or to look over my shoulder throughout the application process. In fact, the opposite was true. As I recall, their only input during the college search came in the form of questions. At one point, I was enamored with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I talked about it non-stop. One day, probably as I waxed poetic about that unmistakable shade of blue, my parents asked, “How are you going to pay for that?” I had never considered the question. I replied, “Well, won’t you pay for it?” They said that they were happy to pay the lion’s share for an in-state school (I would still have to take out loans to cover some), but that anything above and beyond the costs for an in-state school were my responsibility. After a quick glance at the out-of-state tuition, UNC quickly fell from my list. I ended up applying Early Decision to the University of Virginia, and to be honest, I’m not even sure my parents were aware that I was working on the application until I asked them to write a check for the application fee.

As a teenager, being told (not in so many words) that I was limited to state schools struck me as unfair, especially since I had friends whose parents were paying all of their tuition for out-of-state or private colleges. As I matured, though, I came to appreciate my parents’ position, not unlike the way I appreciated my mother’s tough love on the football field. Aside from any purely financial considerations, Though I didn’t really think about it this way until well after the fact, I came to feel that I “owned” part of my college education in a very real sense, and I suspect that had something to do with the fact that I took it much more seriously than I did high school. When I left for college, my parents more or less stopped inquiring about my grades, but those student loan statements served as one last extrinsic motivator, hidden in plain sight. Still, one of the proudest moments of my young adult life was when I mailed my final student loan payment, several years ahead of schedule.

Like most kids, I suspect, there was a time when I thought my parents were just the worst. Now, though, I am incredibly thankful for the way I was raised. I know that my parents are responsible for many of my best traits—particularly my work ethic and self-discipline—as well as my tendency to set high standards for everyone around me, but first and foremost for myself. (They may also be responsible for my neurotic pursuit of “the right way” of doing everything, whether it’s loading a dishwasher, stapling a set of papers together, or standing for the Star-Spangled Banner before a ballgame. I know these quirks drive my students and players—not to mention my wife—crazy at times, but I’ll take the bad with the good.)

In the classroom and on the field, I refuse to apologize for setting high standards. I want my students to learn from their failures, just like I learned from mine, and in order for that to happen, the bar can’t be set too low. Students must strive for excellence and still come up short at times. Hard work is a must, and I believe that work ethic and self-discipline combine to produce success and, in turn, self-confidence. It cannot be the other way around. These are the building blocks of autonomy and adulthood, and more than anything, that is what I want for my students—just what my parents wanted for me. Tough love is hard, and I know that I waver more than my parents did, but I try to “fight the good fight,” as I would much rather my students resent me now and appreciate me later than like me now and leave my classroom unprepared for whatever comes next.