Peter Hayes is an award-win­ning edu­ca­tor and the author of How Was It Pos­si­ble?: A Holo­caust Read­er. With the release of his new book Why?: Explain­ing the Holo­caust today, Peter will be guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

A friend of mine says that the most inter­est­ing parts of any book are the ded­i­ca­tion and the acknowl­edge­ments because they reveal most about the author. In the case of my newest book, Why? Explain­ing the Holo­caust, I doubt this gen­er­al­iza­tion will apply. The sub­ject mat­ter is too unset­tling and impor­tant. But I hope my expres­sions of thanks will get read­ers’ momen­tary atten­tion, espe­cial­ly the ded­i­ca­tion. It is to six teach­ers who changed my life.

Pub­lic edu­ca­tion was one of the glo­ries of Amer­i­ca in the decades just after World War II, which is when I grew up. The first two peo­ple I men­tion opened worlds to me in the mid­dle and high school class­rooms of Fram­ing­ham, Mass­a­chu­setts. Mary Faher­ty was a devout Catholic who not only assured that I got con­firmed in that faith, from which I already was falling away at the age of thir­teen, but who also intro­duced me to Shake­speare, Brown­ing, and Ibsen, who are not exact­ly canon­i­cal Catholic authors. I end­ed up a writer, and I might nev­er have become attuned to words as I am with­out her. James McGillivray taught his­to­ry as I had nev­er encoun­tered it before: in the spir­it of his era, as a sub­ject that focused as much on the frame of ref­er­ence” of those who wrote it as on the mat­ters they wrote about. I end­ed up a his­to­ri­an of a less sub­jec­tivist bent, but I might nev­er have been as ques­tion­ing and skep­ti­cal of received wis­dom as I am with­out him (and Ibsen!).

I came in con­tact with the oth­er four of these men­tors at the elite pri­vate insti­tu­tions — Bow­doin, Oxford, and Yale — to which schol­ar­ships gave me access. All men (such was the era), they could not have been oth­er­wise more dif­fer­ent from each oth­er or from me, the prod­uct of a fam­i­ly in which no one had com­plet­ed col­lege. Ath­ern Daggett was an elder­ly, endear­ing New Eng­land Yan­kee who taught con­sti­tu­tion­al and inter­na­tion­al law in Mr. Chip­sian fash­ion; John Rensen­brink an intel­lec­tu­al icon­o­clast and gad­fly (and lat­er Green Par­ty leader) of Mid­west­ern Dutch Calvin­ist her­itage who super­vised my under­grad­u­ate senior the­sis on African pol­i­tics; Tim Mason, a bril­liant and charis­mat­ic Eng­lish Marx­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in cen­tral Euro­pean his­to­ry, moved my atten­tion toward Europe and back­ward in time, and then passed me on to Hen­ry Turn­er, a clas­si­cal­ly lib­er­al Amer­i­can schol­ar and care­ful prose styl­ist, who devot­ed his career to unmask­ing the easy cer­tain­ties of marx­isant approach­es to Ger­man history.

What all six of these dis­parate peo­ple impart­ed was a com­bi­na­tion of pas­sion and rig­or. They loved and believed in what they taught, and they treat­ed it — and want­ed me to treat it — with the kind of respect that hard work indi­cates. They made par­tic­i­pat­ing in their inter­ests seem like the most fas­ci­nat­ing thing I pos­si­bly could do with my time and ener­gy. That abil­i­ty to spark is, of course, the kinet­ic secret to great teach­ing. It’s also the sin­gu­lar tal­ent that gives the lie to the old saw that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”

Good teach­ing, whether in per­son in a class­room or at a dis­tance via the pages of a book, requires the capac­i­ty to inspire that these peo­ple had, along with one oth­er vital com­po­nent of their mag­ic: empa­thy, the abil­i­ty to sense where lis­ten­ers and read­ers are, to reach that place, and to bring them to a new location.

All but one of these six indi­vid­u­als is gone now; and the excep­tion is 88 years old as I write. But, when­ev­er and wher­ev­er I have taught and writ­ten dur­ing a long career, they have been con­stant pres­ences. To a young per­son whose par­ents were not very adept in that role, these teach­ers pro­vid­ed mod­els of why and how to pay it for­ward. Now, at long last and in a small way, I get to pay them back.

Peter Hayes is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and Ger­man and Theodore Zev Weiss Holo­caust Edu­ca­tion­al Foun­da­tion Pro­fes­sor of Holo­caust Stud­ies Emer­i­tus at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and chair of the Aca­d­e­m­ic Com­mit­tee of the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum.