So I want to preface everything I say today that I am in no way a medical doctor. I don’t wear a white coat, except when I am playing hide and go seek in the snow. I don’t wear a stethoscope, unless it the foam and rubber kind. I do however, have horrible handwriting, a crippling amount of student loan debt, and a very specialized degree that didn’t prepare me to do anything else except for the thing that I do. So, I guess I am more like a doctor than I realize. Just missing that big fat paycheck.
With all that being said, I would like to talk about germs today. No, I am not going to talk about how cute little children are when they have the sniffles and they give you snotty hugs. I am not going to talk about when you are going to give your son a kiss and he coughs directly into your mouth, and the cycle in which the cold manifests itself after that. I wanted to talk about germs from a historical perspective, and how, as teachers, we can use this knowledge of the historical perspective of germs to apply our practices as teachers.
You may be aware that germs are everywhere. They hang from our kids noses, cling to our kids unwashed and post-bathroom digits, and sometimes take a more visible approach with projectile vomit all over the dog. Needless to say they are unavoidable. But we know this now. We have the knowledge. If any of you has worked in a restaurant you know that you have to sing one of many various nursery rhymes while you wash your hands at work because we all know that Saint Mary of the Little Lambs protects us from germs, because the germs (or lambs as the nursery rhymes refers to them) follow her everywhere she goes, leading them away from you. And now you know the true story behind that song.
In the 1880s, however, the existence of germs was still up for debate. In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur had brought more credibility to the idea. By the 1876 World’s Fair in Chicago, medical doctor Joseph Lister had brought his idea of antisepsis to the fair in hopes of, no pun intended, spreading the idea to other surgeons and doctors. He was thought of as a wackadoo. They put Lister and his practices within the realm of homeopathy, a distinction reserved only for the snake oil salesmen of the day, also known as the world’s first distributors of essential oils. Lister’s practice of sterilization was seen as a process that took up too much time and was not worth the effort that was involved in the very meticulous process. However, Lister had eliminated the problem of infections, including the horrific gangrene, from his hospital in London. But, alas, his methods were dismissed for more “experienced” and “traditional” theory. And this rejection was not just the small town doctors, it was heads of prestigious medical universities such as Johns Hopkins and Harvard. Again, no pun intended, but “germ” became a dirty word within the medical community.
Four years later however, this lack of foresight, or some would say openness, to the idea of antisepsis and germs would lead to the death of what potentially could’ve been our greatest president in history. In 1880, James Garfield, a seemingly unambitious Senator from Ohio, was elected President while doing virtually no campaigning and he didn’t even try to win his party’s nomination. He saw it as a duty to serve. As far as I can tell, he was a man without reproach. He wanted to eliminate segregation in the south and grant all rights that white men had to black men as well. He was a visionary who had the overwhelming backing of the people. But within his first year as president, he was shot by a real wackadoo in the form of Charles Guiteau. Now, we don’t have time to get into why, but just believe me when I tell you that the fries were missing from Guiteau’s happy meal; not some of them, ALL of them.
But it was not Guiteau that ultimately killed Garfield. Guiteau walked up to him at a train station, because there was no secret service at the time, and shot him from point blank range in the back. Immediately doctors were on the scene trying to stake their claim to treat the president. Ultimately Dr. Willard Bliss would take over as his chief medical doctor.
I promise the teaching part is coming soon to those of you suffering through history class right now.
Dr. Bliss used to be a believer in germs, but his colleagues had disowned him for not only his belief in germs, but for his desire to see black doctors included within university medical schools. Bliss would cave to pressure and renounce his beliefs in order to gain favor with his colleagues. This came at the loss of the President’s life, because the bullet isn’t what was killing him. Many people during that time still walked around with bullets inside of them from the civil war, and managed to live mostly unencumbered lives. But Bliss insisted, and stuck his unwashed, dirty, ungloved finger multiple times into the bullet wound in James Garfield’s back, leading to an infection that would (Spoiler Alert!) ultimately kill him.
I don’t bring this up to tell educate you about germs or James Garfield. I am using it as an analogy for stepping out of the box as an individual teacher. I think so many times we come up with this great idea in the classroom, and we present it to a small group of colleagues, and they ultimately reject your idea out of hand. Then, after you leave, much like doctors did with Lister, they condemn you for the practices.
I believe this is a growing epidemic within the teaching community (and yes the epidemic pun was intended). There are so many beliefs right now about what best practice is. Is it technology, or Kegan, or Marzano, or Burgess? But the fact remains that our ignorance of an idea sometimes leads to our condemnation of an idea from a coworker, that may actually make a subject come alive for a student, who previously had no intent in becoming a doctor or a teacher or an engineer. And by ignorance, I don’t mean our abrasive attitude toward it, I mean our lack of knowledge about it, the fear of the unknown is contagious. It spreads rapidly. Lister was rejected and then those that rejected him, spread their ignorance to other doctors, and it contaminated their belief systems. But then again, we are talking about a time when the presence of “pus” in a wound was seen as a good thing.
Dr. Bliss was all the more ready to accept the teachings of Lister and apply it in his practice. He had seen the horrors of germs first hand as a surgeon during the Civil War. Instead, because of the pressure of his peers to conform to teachings of the day and not be forward thinking, Bliss would sentence to death possibly the greatest political talent that we never knew.
Imagine what could’ve been done had Garfield lived. Would we be talking about some other names besides Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X as the leading voices of equality? Would it instead be Frederick Douglass who would lead the March on Washington and tell us about his dream? Would it be Mary Ann Shadd who would refuse to use the “coloreds” bathroom? Or would any of that have been necessary? We would be talking about 140 years of equality, as opposed to 54 years (counting from the Civil Rights Act of 1964). You can imagine that our country would look incredibly different.
I am not saying that all ideas are valid and we should not check each other’s work, because that’s something that doctors do. But I am saying, before you condemn the works and lessons of another, consider the consequences of doing so. If you are radical in your approach, don’t let others crush your spirit. You never know. You could be the difference that is made in a student’s life that could lead them to a new awakening within themselves.
Thanks for reading.
Wash your hands.