Looking For Mr Chips


The only clue to what man can do is what man has done.

This is why both parents and politicians have good reason to hope their kids get a good history teacher this year. It won’t guarantee America will be great again, but it sure will help it from becoming worse again.

Fortunately there are many such history teachers in our Chicago-area schools. However, kids don’t get to pick them, they are randomly assigned. When I was in high school, we got lucky. We got, well, lets call him Mr. Chips…

The first day of class he lifted our sense of doom about names, dates and maps to memorize. Instead, he told us to circle the chairs, “because I’m going to work the room like theater in the round.” He explained our nation’s history was essentially a remarkable story of good & evil, best told around a tribal bonfire. He promised — even without the bonfire — it would be a story unlike any we’d ever heard. And remember this was years before “Hamilton” on Broadway or Ken Burns on PBS.

OK, so we weren’t quite convinced, but we were curious. He went to the blackboard — yeah, pre-historic stuff, right? — and wrote the following:

* History is a story

* All stories are true, and some even happened

* In a democracy we get to write some of it

Over the next amazing months, our history unfolded as a fabric of individual stories that somehow coalesced into a national story. John Winthrop…Sam Adams…Patrick Henry…. Abraham Lincoln….Williams Jennings Bryan….Susan B. Anthony….Woodrow Wilson…. FDR ….Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton. Each shaping history by the way they chose to live it.

Our class had graduated by that terrible 1963 in Dallas; but I believe his students, wherever we all were that day, were magnificently equipped to fathom and respond in the best traditions of good citizenship

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Mr Chips’ second marker became more and more clear as together we discovered that facts and myths have a parallax relationship. Columbus, the Pilgrims, Davey Crockett,  Horace Greeley, Jesse James, Teddy Roosevelt are all facts; what helps align them is the same myth. The consuming belief that humanity can find its newest Edens by always moving westward.

As Mr Chips noted, myths are not lies; they are the collective beliefs of a people that can help shape their destiny. The tall-in-the-saddle Cowboy; thepluck and luck of the the inventive individual Capitalist; our American Exceptionalism; our destiny as that City On A Hill for the rest of the world.

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After nine months of the second greatest-story-ever-told, it’s easy to see why we left Mr Chips course believing that we too could — and should! — write some of the story ourselves. From one Chicagoan to another, I not only wish you a Mr Chips in your life; I wish you’d help see to it there are more of them in your local schools. Let that effort be how you write some of the story

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