Chris Carter’s Humanities classes help students navigate a polarized political landscape
Nearly three decades into her time at St. Paul’s School, Chris Carter still describes teaching here as a gift. “It’s everything,” she explains. “My colleagues, my students, the energy, the opportunity I’ve had as a single mother to raise my children in this environment, exposed to so many different perspectives and experiences.”
The Richard F. Davis Chair in Humanities, Carter joined the SPS faculty in 1992 after teaching jobs in Virginia and New York. It wasn’t long after her arrival in Millville that the School moved to consolidate its separate English and history programs into a cross-disciplinary Humanities Department, and she was among a core group of faculty involved in designing and implementing the new curriculum. “It was a huge challenge at first,” Carter recalls of teaching tried and true material in a completely different manner — drawing on primary sources instead of textbooks and shifting the instruction model from a discipline-based model to more of a theme-based approach. “But it also was incredibly rewarding, for me as well as for the students.”
Carter says the classes she teaches every year — the required Fourth Form course Humanities IV and a range of electives including American Government and American Foreign Policy — bring her joy in different ways.
“I like teaching Humanities IV because we can help our students understand that current issues they are trying to grasp are often rooted in the complicated history of the United States,” she says. “We start with the foundational documents, dive into the story of the United States by reading a variety of novels, and use these texts as a way into understanding why individuals come together in community, how they cope with tension and change, and how communities develop and evolve.” Of American Politics she notes, “The students are so willing and interested in grappling with how our party system is and is not working.”
American Politics particularly comes to life during election years, when the curriculum includes hearing from candidates and canvassing in the Concord community. This year, Carter has taken one of the hard lessons learned from COVID-19 — how to incorporate technology into the classroom — and used it to bring a variety of speakers to her students, both in person and virtually. During the Fall Term, Biden administration White House counsel Dana Remus ’93 spoke over Zoom about the increasing politicization of the Supreme Court; Texas congressman Van Taylor shared his thoughts about his state’s politics and how working with the Texas legislature compares to working in the House of Representatives; and Brett Holmgren provided insights into his work as assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. In-person visitor Richard Painter, the onetime chief White House ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration, offered a historic perspective on the Republican party. Rufus Gifford ’92 met with the American government and American politics classes to talk about his career as a Democratic fundraiser and share his thoughts on future political races.
Carter says it’s critical to keep the political discourse balanced, and that one of the most important lessons students take from her classes and the SPS Humanities program is how to engage with others whose opinions are different. “I don’t know that students come here knowing how to do that,” she says, “but I definitely think they learn how to navigate their differences. I just recently had an email from a former student who had been in my Humanities IV class, and he said that one of the things he most misses is having civil conversations around a table where you didn’t always agree with each other but you were willing to talk to each other. It was a lovely note to receive.”
Outside of the classroom, Carter serves as the head of house for Kehaya, where she’s lived for 18 years, and— now that daughter Josie ’17 and son Jack have grown up and moved away — spends as much time as she can with her horse, an off-track Thoroughbred mare with which she does dressage. “That’s important time for me, too — time at the barn with my horse, spending an hour thinking about how the position of my elbows might affect the balance of my horse or whatever. It gives me perspective and helps me be a healthier person.”
It’s with a laugh that Carter, who came to St. Paul’s with a different horse, says the prospect of having summers off to compete in equestrian events was among the things that attracted her to a career in teaching. In other words, just another of the many gifts of living and working at St. Paul’s School.