The Making of an Educator

November 3, 2007

The Making of an Educator

Andrew Hartman

It is easy to see, in retrospect, how I came to be interested in education. The most influential people in my life chose education as a career. This includes my grandfather, longtime swimming coach at Colorado State University, where he also taught physical education courses. It includes both of my parents, who are retired public school teachers. My mother continues to be involved in teacher education, even during her so-called retirement, as the director of the Colorado Writing Project, where she preaches best practices to thousands of teachers. Considering my family history, I might venture to say that education is in my blood. Or, since professional recapitulation is more the result of upbringing than genetics, I should rather say that I have been conditioned to the world of education. To this extent, it should not have been surprising when I enrolled in a teacher education program at Metropolitan State College in Denver (MSCD) in 1997, a few years removed from completing my bachelor’s degree in history from the University of New Mexico. But, at that time, still unsure why I wanted to be a teacher, my career decision left me feeling ambivalent at best, apathetic at worst. Education was not yet a calling. It was not yet a passion. This soon changed.

Luckily, while completing the program at MSCD, I happened upon Professor Charles Angeletti, who taught a methods course required by social studies teachers-in-training. Angeletti, a passionate, sometimes-churlish socialist from Oklahoma, sparked a proverbial fire in my belly that has yet to exhaust. He challenged me to think about education—to think about the world—in ways that I had not yet imagined. From then on, I conceptualized teaching as a revolutionary act, as a means to project my desires for justice onto a world seemingly devoid of it.

My first experience in the classroom was as a student teacher at Denver West High School in 1999, where the mostly Latino student body was comprised of some of the more economically disadvantaged students in the state. It was then that I began to recognize what Jonathan Kozol described as “savage inequalities,” or what he would later term “the shame of the nation.” Relative to the high school I attended in a modest middle-class suburb of Denver, the conditions at West were appalling. In what has become an all-too-familiar description of our nation’s urban schools, West students lacked basic materials, their textbooks were antiquated, and the majority of their teachers had grown cynical and bored. To make matters worse, when the district feebly attempted to integrate West, in the form of a magnet program called the Center for International Studies, the students aptly renamed it the Center for Internal Segregation.

My first paid job as a social studies teacher was at Thornton High School, in a working-class suburb just north of Denver. Although the student population was classified mostly “urban”—a euphemism for minority—the conditions at Thornton were vastly superior to West. Unlike at West, the physical plant was not in disrepair, and many of the teachers seemed to enjoy their jobs. And yet, beneath the surface, I recognized problems—problems of the type I was increasingly reading about in the works of critical theorists such as Paolo Freire and Henry Giroux. In short, I came to understand that race and social class largely determined the education students received at Thornton High School, as elsewhere. Whereas the majority of the students enrolled in the advanced placement courses were white, my basic history courses were full of brown-skinned faces.

Although segregation by way of tracking was dispiriting enough, I soon discovered that race and class were problematic in ways even more insidious. For example, military recruitment was pervasive at Thornton, and the recruiters clearly profiled their targets, going after minority students deemed unlikely to attend college. In response, a student club I sponsored alongside my colleague Andres Martinez—Students for Justice—decided to draw attention to the issue of military recruitment. They distributed fliers listing the “top ten reasons not to join the military.” But our efforts were quickly met by resistance from administration, who heard complaints from the military, which paid handsomely for unfettered access to our students.

I left my job at Thornton after two years having learned two important lessons. First, there are powerful forces at work shaping the supposedly safe confines of the school. In other words, as John Dewey correctly theorized a century ago, the divide between school and society is illusive. Second, educational politics animate otherwise reasonable people to behave in unpredictable, often belligerent ways. This was made evident when some of my colleagues shunned me in the wake of my efforts to shed light on the racist character of military recruitment. These two lessons followed me east to Washington, D.C., as I began work on my doctorate in history at the George Washington University. It is now clear to me that these two lessons have formed the foundation of my scholarship.

Two of my first published articles, projects that germinated in graduate seminars on educational history, sought to understand the political, historical, and theoretical roots of race and class in the context of education. “Language as Oppression: The English-only Movement in the United States,” searched for historical explanations as to why the agenda of the English-only movement emerged on the American political landscape in the 1980s, and why it garnered widespread support among Americans. I theorized that a majority of the white American citizenry subconsciously conflated whiteness and the English language with citizenship. Similarly, “The Social Production of American Identity: Standardized Testing Reform in the United States,” sought to unmask the standardized testing movement as rooted in the historical normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness. I argued that standardized testing represented an important form of social production that has served the American political economy.

My dissertation, which laid the foundation for my book, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, focused less on the theoretical components of education—on how race and class form education—and more on how political crises meld with educational crises in U.S. history. Education and the Cold War explores the ways in which Americans variously experienced the political crisis of the Cold War as a crisis in education. Beginning with John Dewey and the genealogy of progressive education in the late nineteenth century, and ending with the formation of New Left and New Right thought in the early 1960s, Education and the Cold War traces the postwar transformation in U.S. political culture. My book is rooted in the knowledge that Americans have frequently expressed their political aspirations and fears in educational terms.

Autobiographically, the most important discovery I made while researching my book was that I was not the first teacher to be treated poorly due to my political convictions. Thousands of teachers were purged from the public schools during the early Cold War for their political beliefs. My second book, which I am now researching, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, will likewise be an examination of how American political culture shapes education, and of how people often act with animosity towards their political foes in the realm of education. The culture wars are a textbook case of the high degree to which educational politics rouse Americans.

If there is one thing I have hoped to draw attention to in this brief biographical narrative, it is that teaching brought me to scholarship. In this process, however, I discovered that my scholarship has made me a better teacher. I am currently an assistant professor of history at Illinois State University (ISU). Our department includes one of the largest history education programs in the nation. We train about 125 future history teachers per year. One of my central duties is to teach the methods course for our pre-service history teachers. In other words, I am to my students at ISU what Charles Angeletti was to me at MSCD. Like Angeletti did for me, I hope to inspire my students to see the liberating potential of education. This is where my scholarship proves helpful. I understand that attempts to change the world of education are fraught with risk. I am aware of how and why many Americans tend to look unfavorably on those who teach for social justice. Such knowledge, I hope, will allow me to help my students navigate the confounding terrain of educational politics, and yet not give up hope. Because, despite the nastiness of educational politics, it is a necessary battle to join.

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4 Responses to “The Making of an Educator”

  1. Richard M. Jones Says:

    Just on a whim I googled Charles A. and there he was and there was your article. My mom graduated from West in 1939, a working class school then so I was interested in your comments about West. It seems only to have further deteriorated from the early seventies when I worked with students from West at Metro State’s Upward Bound program.
    Charles had a similar effect on me as he did you. He did many brave things back in the late sixties/early seventies. I now live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and have for over 25 years. Teaching must be a revolutionary act. Joan Wink in Critical Pedagogy said it best: to be neutral is to support the status quo. I look forward to finding your book and reading it. RMJ

  2. withinempire Says:

    Thanks for your comments Richard. I would love to send you an e-mail to find out more about what you do. Feel free to contact me at ahartma@ilstu.edu. Cheers. Andrew

  3. Charles E. Angeletti Says:

    Andrew,

    Thank you for the compliment in “The Making of an Educator.”

    I had to look up “churlish”…

    You were generous (too generous) in giving me credit for your educational successes.

    By the way, Richard M. Jones, where the hell are you? I am glad that you are still alive and breathing. I am beginning my 42nd Year at Metro. Can you believe it?

    Give me a call – 303-556-3053
    Or email me at – angeletticharles -at- hotmail.com

    I dutifully check my email at least once a month. I refuse to use the MSCD email system.

    Richard and Andrew:

    What good is a tree if you can’t kill it? Also, there are renewed and vigorous attempts to get me out of teaching “Methods of Teaching Social Studies.” Maybe it’s the churlish thing!

    Charles A.


  4. […] briefly describe why I decided to write this book. (For a longer biographical sketch, see my essay, The Making of an Educator.) Before entering graduate school at the George Washington University, I taught high school history […]


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