I hesitate to say, “existential crisis.” That phrase implies a sort of near-death experience, impromptu over-the-hill party, or impulsive purchase of a Harley. However, I believe the term applies when, about a year ago, I started wondering how much I actually recalled from my education. I am only twenty-two years old, but I have spent about fifteen years being taught. My teachers have taught me elementary science, European history, beginning Spanish, price theory for microeconomics, and more. I have spent hundreds of hours doing homework. I have devoted an equal amount of time to listening to lectures. Statistics aside, what did I have to show for my education? I could not recite the Gettysburg Address, the principles I learned in my first college chemistry class departed my brain long ago, and basic dates for any historical event escaped me. Why, if my brain acted at best as a dumpster for information, did I try to learn?
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Armchair philosophizing placated my fear. (I do not consider myself a philosopher for grandeur; rather, I label the activity I engaged in “philosophizing” because I lack the professional background to dabble in psychology.) I considered the role of memory. Memorizing facts must not be an end in and of itself. Rather, memorizing solidifies patterns in our minds. For example, I memorize the dates of wars so I can see which wars coincided or if one war provoked another down the road. I memorize the vocabulary of a foreign language to better understand my native tongue. I memorize poems to understand human nature. I memorize grammar rules to better convey and speak to that aforementioned nature. Memorization must serve the end of conceptualization. That is, we memorize facts so we can understand the concepts those facts underpin.
Understanding concepts changes thought processes. Memorization, on the other hand, simply uses static thought processes to store information away in the library of the mind. I would rather reorganize my mental library than fill it. Note, though, that you need books in order to reorganize a library. Similarly, you need knowledge (that stems from facts) to change your thought processes. Consider this analogy: facts act like dots, while trends and concepts act as lines connecting those dots. Yes, you need dots. However, fail to connect the dots and the dots eventually fade. Connect the dots through trends, and they will remain in memory.
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Trends cannot become an end in and of themselves either. Hannah Arendt, in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, said, “Caution in handling generally accepted opinions that claim to explain whole trends of history is especially important for the historian of modern times, because the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.” When I teach, I do not want my students to understand Arendt’s warning. Neither do I want them to buy into the phrase, “The tides of history.” Such a phrase communicates a helplessness – a feeling that we are only bystanders to history rather than participants in it. A tide is unalterable. If history is the same, then we must either observe it or drown in it, but we cannot change it. To act like trends control our lives, that they are divine prophecies rather than incomplete predictions, or that they are permanent rather than plastic, is to accept our fate as a bystander to happenings. I try to teach trends as guidelines for human nature rather than the parameters of what will be.
This essay conveys the root of my teaching style, especially in history. Facts are meant to support concepts, trends are seen as alterable, and students are made to feel like they have a proactive role in history. I want my students to know that they, by being the dots of history, ultimately control where the lines of the future will fall. Thus stands the conclusion of my existential crisis.