A Teacher’s Legacy
I was about seven the first time I saw my father teach. I sat in the back of the lecture room, scribbling in an examination blue book. Every once in a while, I looked up at the college kids seated near me, unwitting inspiration for my imaginative stories.
Next to the blackboard was a tall man gesturing wildly, with chalk in hand, his usually soft voice at full volume as he punctuated his lecture with anecdotes from history. Like a born-again preacher wooing his congregation, my father spoke zealously.
His gospel for students? Learn about history in order to understand your grandparents, your parents — and yourselves.
I remember asking Dad if he liked teaching. He smiled broadly. “What other job would pay me to read books?” But even then, I knew being a professor was, for him, about more than devouring the latest hardcover analysis of political upheaval. It was about translating scholarly ideas into language that could engage the minds of history majors, business majors, and college jocks alike. It was about nurturing the worldview of even the most provincial undergraduate student.
“What other job would pay me to read books?” he smiled.
Being the child of an academic had its unique perks, most notably the spirited conversations around the family dinner table. Dad became especially animated when friends visiting from overseas — Japan, France, Italy, or some other country — were eager for the perspective of an American historian. Dad liked to wax eloquent about U.S. foreign relations after the Second World War. He often pointed out that the movie “M*A*S*H,” as well as the TV series it spawned, was actually about the Vietnam war, not the Korean “conflict.”
Of course, there were also drawbacks to growing up in a home headed by a history professor.
One Christmas, while most families huddled together in front of the TV to watch George Bailey save Bedford Falls from becoming Pottersville, my father summoned my siblings, my mother, and me for a video double feature: Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” followed by Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” Somehow, even holiday gatherings could turn into history lessons.
At times an intellectual curmudgeon, Dad confronted each of his students’ essays with a critical eye. On more than one occasion, he got some pushback. “This is a history class, Dr. Baggs. Why are you correcting my grammar?”
But I can think of no better gift than a set of firm expectations based on high standards — especially when the teacher holds himself equally accountable. Even for courses he taught repeatedly, he assigned new books so that he, too, could be reading and learning alongside his students.
I can think of no better gift than a set of firm expectations based on high standards.
In 1964, when Dad gave his first lecture, there were no PowerPoint projectors or VCRs — nor did any computers grace the desktops in offices. Yet even after these technological advances made their way onto campus, he eschewed the wizardry of modern academia. He winced at words like multimedia, took his sweet time warming up to chalk replacements like dry-erase markers, and staunchly refused to learn how to use a laptop.
Having never learned to type, the eccentric professor relied instead on his distinctive longhand to create syllabi and exams, painstakingly writing out words as well as drawing his own maps.
By the end of his career, Dad had abandoned prepared lectures in favor of a fresh approach. In addition to completing the assigned readings, he asked students to submit at least one question on a slip of paper. The collected slips became fodder for a freewheeling lecture and extended question-and-answer discussion during class time.
In 2003, the man who fell in love with teaching some 40 years earlier officially retired. While his septuagenarian body was eager to slow down, his mind for recalling dates and events was razor-sharp — and his appetite for understanding national identities and global affairs, still ravenous.
Right up until his death from a cerebral hemorrhage four years later, Dad remained attuned to the lessons, and warnings, of history.
As a child, I didn’t always appreciate his passion. I rebuffed his efforts to give me a copy of Farewell to Manzanar. The topic wasn’t being covered in any of my social studies classes at school, so I didn’t see the point. Besides, at twelve, I had no interest in imagining how my country could send Americans who looked like me to a so-called internment camp.
I had no interest in imagining how my country could send Americans who looked like me to a so-called internment camp.
Given the tumultuous four years of the Trump presidency, I value the history lessons Dad was determined to share with us — now more than ever. Still reeling from the horror of the January 6, 2021, putsch, I find myself yearning to talk with him — and to ask for his thoughts on how we can make sure it never happens again.
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Or so the putdown goes. But educators can have a profound influence on the consciousness — and conscience — of each one of us.
As Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
This is a reworked version of an older essay.