As whimsical as this may sound, the night before the first day of school is still a very stressful moment. It signals the end of the summer, which is without a doubt the best invention ever created by humankind. And I still have the same nightmares I had when I was in third grade -- going to class with the wrong notebook, showing up on the wrong day for the test, that kind of thing. You think that kind of thing is going to stop when you are twenty, then when you are thirty, and then... well let's just say it never goes away. at least for me.
One of the great things about summer, for me, is that I get to read books. I mean, the kind of thing where you sit down and actually read a whole book, not a few chapters here and there, and without significant interruption. I read a couple this summer and re-read a couple of old books that I had read before and not really understood.
The best of the latter category is The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood. My friend and colleague and co-author Jonathan Sallet reminded me about this book and he was right to do so. I had read this book a decade or so ago and not understood it. I mean, I knew it was important and I knew it was smart, but I didn't know just how important or smart it really was.
This time the book had a profound effect on me. Wood explains, in deep detail, the social revolution that was embedded in the (essentially political conservative) American revolution -- in particular, the move from a traditional hierarchical society where relationships were understood as familial obligation, to a modern market society of autonomous agents where relationships were understood as voluntary contracts betweeen consenting parties of equal standing.
I'll have more to say about the substance of the argument as I work on my book about US-China relations, because Woods' argument is coming to figure prominently in my thinking. For the moment, and in a whimsical way, I just want to reflect on what was different in reading it this time.
This time, it got into my gut not just into my head. What i mean by that is that on this read, it wasn't just a social science argument that made good sense to me. I began to feel, as Gordon Wood wanted me to feel, what it really felt like to live in colonial America. I felt like I could feel in my gut the sense of familial obligation that cemented the relationship between the colonists and the King. I understood at an emotional level, a little bit, how one could have been a loyalist rather than a patriot in 1776. The experience was more like reading a really great novel than anything else.
And now I find myself with a powerful challenge, on the night before the first day of school. In the next thirteen weeks, I will have 26 chances to make some kind of (hopefully coherent and powerful) argument before a large lecture hall of smart undergraduates. I know the intellectual messages that I want them to receive, but with 26 chances of 90 minutes each, what kind of impact can I possibly have on their guts?
I've long thought that the key to being a decent teacher is to allow your enthusiasm for what you are teaching to show. But enthusiasm only goes so far. I'm waiting for some easy to deploy, user friendly technology solution that can take me a little further. I want someway for my students to 'feel' a little bit of what it must have felt like in the winter of 1947; or the summer of 1848; or (I said this was whimsical) at the Battle of Hastings.
Maybe it's time for me to start experimenting with the Xbox or something like that? ;)