Goodbye to All That

by W.D. Ehrhart

I have had a very long, though unusual, career as a teacher. I first entered the classroom as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle teaching freshman composition in 1977. Later I taught high school for a year, then went off to write a book. I taught high school for another two years, then spent several more years writing books. I taught high school for three more years when my daughter was born, then returned once again to writing books.

All three of those high school jobs ended badly because, though I did great with the kids in all three schools, I was not very good at playing nicely with adults, especially adults who are mostly hypocritical liars and windbags, which includes most adults who rise to power at institutions like schools.

However, in my early 50s, I was offered a position, unsolicited, teaching history and English at a boys’ private school by a headmaster who knew me through my writing. By then, I had finally learned that when confronted with a brick wall, it is better to go find a ladder than to lower one’s head and try to run through the wall.

So I ended up staying at that school for nearly twenty years, retiring on my own terms at the age of 70, and going out on a wave of good will such as I had never before experienced in my working life. And as fortune would have it, I retired six months before Covid arrived, which would have been my downfall because I would have failed miserably at remote computerized teaching. And I mean miserably. I have the technological skills of a Chesapeake Blue Crab.

And as I watch what has been happening in education these past five years, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have gotten out when I did. I used to teach a Joseph Conrad novel called The Nigger of the Narcissus. Can you imagine what would happen if I tried to teach that book today? Teachers can’t even teach Huckleberry Finn anymore without being accused of racism. But if you try to teach Ta Nehisi Coates, the right-wingers go bugfuck over extremist woke-ism. It seems you can’t win for losing. How about The Great Gatsby? Can we still teach that one?

Speaking of which, why in the 21st century United States of America should we even have to have Diversity, Equity & Inclusion programs? We should be ashamed of ourselves, at this point in our history, that we are not as a matter of course diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

But of course, large numbers of us are not, and over the past decade, Donald J. Trump has actually made it okay to be openly and flagrantly not diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Indeed, localities and whole states are now passing laws not only removing DEI programs, but making them illegal.

As for Critical Race Theory, well, that’s never been taught anywhere but in law schools. What most people, especially CRT’s critics, call CRT is actually something better known as history. Just plain history. What actually happened. I’ve been teaching it for as long as I’ve been teaching history going back to my first history teaching job in 1981.

At the school where I taught most recently, there is presently a huge controversy generated by some students—no doubt supported by their parents—who have publicly complained that their opinions and points of view are being suppressed by liberal faculty members who discriminate against them because of their political conservativism. (What the current Republican party is conserving, I’d like to know, but that’s a different debate.) That their grades are actually being lowered because of their political opinions.

I made no secret of my own political point of view when I was teaching. My classroom was festooned with posters of Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler saying that he had spent his career as “a racketeer for capitalism,” I.F. Stone declaring that “every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s assertion that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” Scott Ritter’s “I can train a monkey to wave an American flag; that does not make the monkey patriotic,” a rainbow-colored triangle indicating a safe space for LGBTQs, and similar stuff. Lots of it.

I never had a student complain that I was discriminating against him because of his politics, or a student’s parents either. But I wonder if that would still be true five years later. I wonder if students and their parents would still accept that I can accept their kids just as I find them, and treat them fairly and respectfully.

I wonder if I could teach my history unit on the European Conquest of North America, or my unit on Race in America from 1619 to the present, or my English unit on the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay in which we compared “I, Too” and “The Lynching,” or my course on Smedley Butler and the Rise of American Imperialism.

Between the Snowflake Left Wingnuts who take offense at references to “the field” because it reminds them of slavery in the cotton fields, and the Snowflake Right Wingnuts who are convinced that reading Heather Has Two Mommies will convince their children to be gay, I don’t think I would stand a chance of surviving two weeks in a high school classroom in the spring of 2024.

Lucky for me, I don’t have to try. But I feel sorry for the teachers who continue to try to navigate this educational minefield. And I feel really sorry for their students. I truly miss the daily contact with young people that kept me young in mind and spirit if not in body. But whenever I hear someone say that the solution to gun violence in our schools is to arm the teachers, or that academia has been commandeered by the communist, atheist, radical, revolutionary left, I am glad I got out of the classroom when I did.


W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland.

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