As spring semester approached, Avery Kaplan ’20 gave her former Bedford [Mass.] High School history teacher, James Sunderland ’92, a call to talk about what education means in 2020. Below is an edited portion of their conversation.
Avery Kaplan: What do you think Wesleyan aspires to be, and what do you think education in this country aspires to be?
James Sunderland: It’s always seemed to me that Wesleyan is a place that sincerely wants to be engaged in learning; making an impact in the world in a way that’s also humble, listening to people with an open mind, the free exchange of ideas, disagreeing without being disagreeable. And that we’re all in this shared effort to make more sense of the world. The underlying idea is authenticity; an intent at no pretense.
AK: It’s interesting, that idea of authenticity. One of the worst things you can be labeled as at Wesleyan is “performative”—it’s a pejorative term. How do you think Wesleyan fosters authenticity?
JS: There’s certainly an explicit message of it at Wesleyan, but it’s something that is much easier said than done. For one thing, the professors I had were sincerely engaged in their work. Engaging with students as equals is important. At Wesleyan, I felt that my voice was respected by my professors, that they weren’t pedantic. I think that in general Wesleyan attracts a student body who wants to go someplace where you can have interesting conversations with peers. My friend group, for example, was pretty diverse in terms of interests. We weren’t all the same majors, we met by the randomness of first-year dorms, and it’s made for some really cool conversations over the last 30 years.
AK: I can definitely see how your time at Wes influenced the classroom culture you cultivate at the high school. It was also clear, when I was your student, that you were actively teaching us to become citizens. How has your strategy to teach civics and create citizens changed as you’ve been teaching?