Text: Prof. Gregory S. Aldrete’s acceptance speech for UW System teacher of the year

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UW-Green Bay Prof. Gregory S. Aldrete shared a lesson on the value of history and the humanities with the UW System Board of Regents when he received the 2015 Regents Teaching Excellence Award at the board’s meeting in Waukesha on April 10.

In his acceptance speech, Aldrete (shown with students in the file photo above, during an outdoor demonstration of ancient battle formations) told the Regents he doesn’t employ textbooks in his Greek and Roman history classes, preferring his students read and analyze original texts by people of the times. He went on to describe the three fundamental skills he seeks to encourage in his students — organizing and assessing information, communicating effectively and thinking critically — and why they’re essential in any career. He also urged the board never to lose sight of the core values of history and the humanities and the role of universities as places where questions are asked.

The full text of Aldrete’s prepared remarks:

I would like to thank the Board of Regents for honoring me with this award. I am very grateful and humbled to be selected out of so many fine teachers. I’d also like to express my appreciation to all the students that I have shared a classroom with over the last 20 years at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, as well as my colleagues there in the departments of History and Humanistic Studies. Working in such an environment and with such terrific students and dedicated faculty has been an immensely gratifying experience. Finally, I would like to offer my deepest thanks to my wife, Alicia. She is my collaborator in the classroom, the co-author of several books with me, and my partner in all things.

I’m an ancient historian, and I’d like to begin my brief comments by sharing a bit of trivia about antiquity and the discipline of history itself. The very first time that the word history was used with its current definition of “a record of past events” was by the Greek writer Herodotus, who lived over 2,000 years ago. In the opening sentence of his famous account of the wars between Greece and Persia, he stated, “These are the histories of Herodotus of Halicarnassus which he writes in the hope of preserving the memory of what human beings have done.”

However, the Greek word that he uses here, “historia,” did not originally mean “a record of the past.” Prior to Herodotus’ usage in this sentence, “historia” had simply meant “asking questions.” I have always been very strongly attracted to this original meaning of history as an act of asking questions, and, in fact, view it as being squarely at the core of my philosophy, both of teaching and of doing research. To me, the essence of teaching is the methodology pioneered by another famous person from the ancient world, Socrates, whose pedagogy consisted entirely of posing questions to his students and getting them to formulate and defend arguments.

I employ no textbooks in my classes. In all of them, the reading consists entirely of material written by the actual people that we are studying. And when I read these ancient texts with my students, we are not passively absorbing information: we actively engage the texts, we aggressively interrogate them, we rip them apart and look both for the meanings that the author intended to convey as well as those he or she did not, we consider issues of bias, and think about what sources the author had to draw upon, and we always ask, can we believe what the author says, and why, or why not.

When examining historical events, it is not a matter of memorizing what happened, but rather exploring WHY things happened, trying to understand how earlier events influenced later ones. We look at history not as an inevitable succession of discrete events, but rather as a complex network of interrelated paths taken and not taken. Discussion, argument, and analysis play a key role in these investigations, and I always try to encourage lively debate in the classroom.

In this endeavor, content is important, and the students naturally tend to think of classes in terms of what factual information they have learned, but more important is the skills that I hope they acquire in the course of this process. There are three fundamental sets of skills that I try to emphasize in all classes: First, information management: how to collect, organize, and assess information. Second, communication skills: how to express yourself clearly and persuasively, both in speech and in writing. Third, critical thinking: developing the habit of constantly evaluating information according to rigorous, objective standards, and being open to re-assessing your own beliefs according to those same standards.

These are skills that are essential and useful in ANY career, not just ones directly related to history or the humanities, and even more than that, these are valuable and beneficial to being an engaged, happy, and productive citizen, and making a positive contribution as a member of society generally.

One of the original ideas behind the foundation of the university, when they were first created as institutions during the Middle Ages, was that exposing people to this sort of Humanistic education fundamentally transformed them, and actually made them better human beings and citizens.

As a historian working in an interdisciplinary humanities department, I have to confess that there is something a little bittersweet about the timing of this award. As you are all too well aware, we live in a moment when, across the nation, the value of a university education, and especially, the value of the humanities within that education, is being challenged.

You are the Board of Regents, and the future of the UW system is in your hands. In whatever ways this wonderful education system ends up being transformed or changed over the coming years and decades, I hope that we never lose sight of the original core function of the university, which was to be a place in which informed, thoughtful citizens are forged, and above all, as a place, where questions are asked.

Thank you for your time.