Teaching Through the Rearview
Caution — object lessons might not be as they appear
- By Lee Ann Cox
Mark Stoler is a contradiction. Or maybe he’s not. Stoler is not the first baby boomer to see his 1960s’ idealism and righteous anti-war stance recede in pace with the length of his hair, but this highly lauded professor of military and diplomatic history tells his students when they arrive at the subject of John Kennedy, “there’s a schizophrenia that’s going to enter me now, because I was 16 years old when he was elected. To this day, I cannot look at motion pictures of Kennedy without my hand shaking.” But the historian views the presidential record through a different lens.
Despite renown as an author and a historian, it’s teaching Stoler regards as his true gift, his passion, even a “religious calling.” The fact that his students and peers concur landed him one of this year’s Kroepsch-Maurice Excellence in Teaching Awards.
“Stoler has a cult-like following among people who are serious about their schoolwork,” says senior Cassidy Hooker, who’s not alone in crediting Stoler with her decision to major in history. “He’s one of the most demanding professors I’ve had; he sets an incredibly high bar.” So high even the proselytes admit to cursing Stoler by semester’s end, a phenomenon he both expects and apparently enjoys.
When an intermediate class last week tittered anxiously at the reminder that papers were due on Monday, Stoler shot back, “Laughter is one response to that.”
A rebel and a cause
He’s been a tough grader since 1970, when he arrived here to start his first, and only, fulltime faculty position. Then, Stoler wore jeans and t-shirt, his hair tied back. His students said they knew he was the prof because his shirt was clean. Today he walks into Old Mill in a professorial jacket and tie, although the coat quickly comes off and the sleeves get rolled up. “First, I was like their brother, then their favorite uncle,” reflects Stoler, who retires from UVM in May. As his relationship evolved to father, now grandfather, he sees changes beyond his own maturing.
“What I’ve found is, given the consumer culture, for the past five to 10 years I’ve had to be more explicit in my opening lecture,” he says. “I had to be willing to risk my popularity… to clarify that the values they might be bringing into the classroom I did not share.” If students believe they are the customers at university, Stoler begs to differ: “That makes me the checkout clerk, and that’s not why I got a Ph.D. and decided to teach.” He offers a model of education as social contract a la John Locke, with rights and responsibilities on each side.
“When I was in college I was lectured about all my responsibilities,” Stoler tells students the first day in his deep, newscaster’s voice. “You’ll learn that all of that generation rebelled violently, and the odd consequence of that is that you know everything about your rights … and nothing about your responsibilities.” Then Stoler outlines the terms of their mutual contract and offers the opportunity not to “sign.” For those who stay, Stoler will go to any lengths to help them succeed.
Idols and ideology
As for causes in the classroom, David Horowitz can rest at ease — this professor pointedly steers away from sharing his own politics. “My responsibilities,” Stoler says, “…(are to) provoke them, get them to question, get them to look at different sides of an issue, not give them my own ideology but all of the different possible interpretations of what’s going on.”
He’s so serious about it that when he has a strong bias, he warns students and takes steps to counter it. “I bash Woodrow Wilson,” Stoler says, citing his top example. “I think he’s the most overrated president in American history and one of the most dangerous.” But he also assigns a biography that praises Wilson.
“I’m an iconoclast,” he says, “I love to shatter idols and myths. For years I got the liberals in my class upset by attacking Wilson but now he’s become a neoconservative so I can get the liberals and the conservatives upset simultaneously.” Depending on the decade and where his students stand, he’s argued both for and against Truman dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
The heart of history
Stoler is so good at teaching that one doesn’t have to listen long to be entertained (he distinguishes between Johnson’s colorful and sharply pointed profanity — “The OAS couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel,” — and Nixon’s bitter profanity-laced rants); awed by his ability to reel off long, eloquent, obscure historical speeches; and deeply unsettled by the profound limits of humanity, the deliberate and merely misunderstood lessons of history, the damage done by good intentions uninformed by knowledge.
“What I see constantly is people looking for analogy, for ‘lessons of the past’ to apply to the present,” Stoler says. “I’m on the verge of rejecting any analogy because they are so often misused. What I think may be simply a human tendency is that you will choose the lessons from the past that reinforce the conclusions that you have already reached. History is a process,” he continues. “I do not think history ever repeats itself — patterns of human behavior do, but history does not."
Ultimately, he says on drawing lessons from history, you have to be very careful, recognize your own biases, and truly know your history.
Stoler’s primary bias now, one he says comes with age, is toward drawing on the mind rather than the heart. Somehow it seems you need both to puzzle out the right way to live. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of Stoler’s great influences, speaks of the inescapability that you’re on earth to do good; to do good you need power; power will corrupt you; resisting power to stay pure is immoral. It’s heady. But if you listen to Stoler and his many sage quotations, this time from the Jewish scholar Hillel, working out that puzzle is our imperative: “If I am not for me, who am I? If I am only for me, what am I? And if not now, when?”