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Brunch Sampler: Vic Henningson

(Host) We've been celebrating the holidays by sampling some of the essays recorded earlier this year at the VPR Commentator Brunch. The theme was When Worlds Collide... and that reminded commentator Vic Henningsen that some encounters have consequences that reach far into the future.

(Henningsen) I'm Vic Henningsen and this is Close Encounters of a Classroom Kind.

When I first saw this topic I thought - aliens! I know aliens. I work with aliens every day. I teach teenagers, the lowest form of life. And I teach them something they find totally alien - history - which makes me an alien to them.

As an American history teacher, grade book in hand, I am what I always wanted to be when I watched Superman back in the 1950's. Strange visitor from another planet, possessed with powers far beyond those of mortal men, who fights a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way!

Dream on.

But worlds do collide in my classroom every day, as past, present, and future meet, mingle, and change each other around the seminar table. After all, what is a course of study - a curriculum - but an attempt to make that collision of worlds productive?

It's the best effort of teachers to discern the future and prepare students for the world they'll inhabit as adults. It's an audacious task which must be put in perspective: picture a history teacher, born in 1950, giving lessons meant to be useful to students who'll still be living in 2050.

When you think about it that way - what a humbling task. What gets left out? What stays in?

My generation was taught to lead what Henry Luce called The American Century, a time when the United States would develop unprecedented power and influence in world affairs.

The world my students enter is different: no longer bi-polar, no longer defined by the Cold War. Today's world is more complex and bewildering than those who taught me could have imagined. Even the nature of learning itself has changed, thanks to the most profound information and communications revolution since the introduction of printing. My teaching must reflect those realities.

If I'm not on the right track, our classroom collisions will be, as the saying goes, a tale of the unwilling led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary. If I'm right, those collisions will produce more light than heat.

But I'll never know because, like all teachers, I sow harvests I'll never see.

See the When Worlds Collide main page

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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