Last week, at a round table in the back of the Homy Inn, history teacher Dave Diehl gave a lesson on Andrew Johnson and the reconstruction of the South following the Civil War.
Over beers and several dog food dishes worth of peanuts, Diehl explained (re-explained? My memory of high school history is so very, very hazy) how Johnson (a Democrat) came to run on the same ticket as Abraham Lincoln (a Republican) and thus succeed him as president after Lincoln’s assassination. Diehl explained how Johnson, who had barely interacted with Lincoln during his presidency, was woefully unprepared both for the job and for the task of dealing with a Congress made up almost entirely of Republicans. He explained various highly partisan bills and schemes that came to pass, including Johnson’s eventual impeachment.
He talked for an hour, as his informal class of nine asked questions: Did being a Republican in those days mean basically the opposite of what it does today? (Yes). Do you, Mr. Diehl, enjoy alternative history books, of the variety that tend to involve zombies or vampires? (No).
His students paid close attention, save for quick glances at the Creighton basketball game playing on a TV in a corner and a small amount of covert posting on Facebook and Instagram.
The class grew out of a conversation among friends, during which Diehl had complained about the prospect of spending another night at home, watching “The Big Bang Theory.” A friend replied, only half-joking, that he would enjoy relearning American history from Diehl in his downtime. Possible topics were discussed, a date and location were picked and friends gathered.
I, too, went to college with Diehl, and I remember him as both a smarty pants and a bit of a showman (his signature dance move was to jump over his leg with his other leg). I figured the lesson would be, if nothing else, entertaining.
It was. More surprisingly, it was also sort of interesting to learn high school level American history as an adult.
Like a lot of people, I didn’t pay too much attention to politics as a high school student. I paid more attention in college, but less than I do now. I was interested in history, but in the same way I was interested in novels or “Six Feet Under” (which I watched obsessively during that time). History was interesting for its stories.
As I came to care more about politics, it became interesting in more of a forensic way: How does history inform the present? This is apparently the case for pretty much everyone in the world, Diehl said. Friends tell him all the time they wish they had paid more attention in high school history class.
Diehl also pointed out that history is also different from, say, math, in which students experience an “ah ha” moment where everything clicks and suddenly makes sense.
“History doesn’t have a light bulb moment like that,” he said. “It more gradually develops over time.”
That was the case for me and the eight others at the Homy Inn last week.
After Diehl’s lecture, some people Googled historical figures discussed that night. Some migrated closer to the television to watch the Creighton game, some sat around and talked. And Diehl announced another talk, which is scheduled for Monday night at 6:45, at the Homy Inn. Topic: TBD.
In the meantime, he’ll be teaching Omaha high school students, which isn’t too much different from teaching adults.
“Anytime you have an audience that is curious about learning, it’s always fun,” he said. “Engagement of your audience just makes it fulfilling.”