Not too long ago I ran into one of my student’s parents in a local bookstore. It was a casual discussion that eventually turned to my interests in the Civil War. He asked about my ongoing projects and whether I might be speaking in the area in the near future. He eventually asked me if I had any plans to pursue a PhD in history or if I had any interest teaching on the college level. At this point I am not sure what was said in response, but I have to admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable with the question. Sometimes the question seems to be asked from a vantage point that implies a negative judgment on high school teaching. Others no doubt find it difficult to acknowledge that one can work at becoming a serious scholar within the confines of a high school setting. Here are some thoughts as to why I am not teaching in a college or university.
The quick answer to the question is that I do not have a PhD in history. I did apply into a well- respected program in Southern History and the Civil War but was turned down. Needless to say I was a bit surprised given that I had a few minor publications and an M.A in philosophy. Of course I got over it. Once over the rejection I realized that what I wanted more than anything else was to get back into the classroom and study the history of the South. I applied into the graduate program in history at the University of Richmond and was accepted. The department is small which guaranteed close contact with the professors. Best of all I was able to go part time and my school agreed to pay the tuition. I was lucky enough to meet Professor Robert Kenzer early on. His area of specialization bridged both the South and the Civil War, which meant that I would get a broader view of 19th Century America. He is the author of an excellent postwar study of black entrepreneurs in North Carolina titled, Enterprising Entrepreneurs: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915. Kenzer was an ideal mentor in so many ways. He encouraged me to submit essays to journals and to present my work at academic conferences. I was given a great deal of freedom to work on independent studies which gave me plenty of opportunity to develop my own ideas and balance school with teaching. My work was carefully critiqued, which ultimately led to a pretty good M.A. thesis on the Battle of the Crater and Civil War memory. An M.A in history has put me in an ideal position. Civil War history is one of the few areas where non-academics can make their mark. Given the ongoing debate over the relative isolation of most history professors from popular audiences I believe this is worth mentioning. It is common to attend conferences with non-professionals on panels and there is nothing strange about picking up a university press book by a park service employee or museum curator, etc. A few non-academics stand out: Stephen Sears, William Marvel, Eric Wittenberg, Gordon Rhea, Alan Nolan, and Bob Krick. I am not trying to place myself in the same category as those just mentioned. It is simply to say that just about everything I could do with a PhD I can do now.
That said the main reason why I am still teaching high school history is that I love my students. My job brings me face-to-face on a daily basis with young adults who have a great deal of energy and curiosity. When done right, teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences and the relationship between teacher and student one of the most honest. I am continually impressed by how much I have learned from them over the years. As much as I teach them, my students have taught me much more. There is the continual challenge of finding new ways to convey difficult information or to impress upon them the importance of the past. I try as best I can to introduce them to the world of ideas, that each of them can partake in the ongoing debate surrounding the big questions, and that they can and should think seriously about their own identity. Best of all, my students keep me young. Right now in the car stereo is a “burned” CD titled, “Mr. Levin’s Rap Mix.” In short, there is a sense of excitement that is difficult to imagine in any other job.