Best Class You Never Had: A Novel (Paperback)
A classroom of skeptical students and their charismatic teacher make a foray into the nation’s past. The characters are fictive; the history—most importantly, the vision of history, grounded in a dying but immortal dream—is real.
History teacher Kevin Lee is retiring from Seneca Falls High School, where he has worked for the past forty years. He decides to use the freedom of his pending exit to toss the state curriculum and teach the U.S. survey as the story of the alluring, inspiring, murderous concept we know as the American Dream—which, he understands, his students regard with justified, if instinctive, skepticism. Lee discusses the rise, fall, and legacy of the Dream with these smart, funny, and irreverent eleventh graders, in a narrative peppered with memos, email exchanges, text messages, student journalism, and other documents from beyond the walls of his classroom. The result is the best history class you never had.
A chronological history of the United States, this compelling novel also offers a snapshot of American education, written by a veteran teacher who slices through the arid literature of pedagogy to vividly depict the life of the classroom. Finally, it offers a deeply affectionate and patriotic vision of American life—one fully aware of the nation’s limits and failures while honoring the longings so many of us have to believe in our country, even as we harbor deepening doubts about our nation.
About the Author
Jim Cullen was born in Queens, New York, the son of a New York City firefighter. Jim taught at Harvard, Brown, and Sarah Lawrence College before spending nineteen years at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, where he has served as chair of the History Department and as a member of the Board of Trustees. He currently teaches history at newly founded Greenwich (CT) Country Day School. He is the author of nineteen books, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Newsday, CNN.com, Forbes, The American Historical Review, The Journal of American History, and other publications.
"How would you teach American history if the themes and lessons were entirely up to you? Jim Cullen's brilliant new novel provides one very vivid set of answers. Through the eyes of retiring teacher Kevin Lee, we see history presented as it really is: a set of puzzles and riddles, about who we are and what we want to be. I want all of our young people to take a course from Mr. Lee, or from someone like him. Why can't they?"
— Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History of Education, University of Pennsylvania and author of "The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America"
"Jim Cullen's incisive tale of the provocative teacher whose final act is making U.S. history come alive for his high school students in small town America is a powerful reminder of what good teaching can and should be."
— Liz Willen, editor-in-chief, The Hechinger Report
"Great teachers tell great stories, and Jim Cullen is a great teacher who tells a story that is surprising, uplifting, ironic, and even a little depressing, all at the same time. It is a story about American history, good teaching, constraints on good teaching, and most of all the precariousness of life."
— Ellen Lagemann, Distinguished Scholar, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, New York University
"In Best Class You Neve Had, Jim Cullen brings a unique voice to the story of an imperfect nation's struggle to exist and to maintain its democratic ideals. Set in the history classroom of retiring teacher Kevin Lee and his inquisitive, if not impatient students, Cullen explores the American Dream, the persistent conflict of classes, the plight of enslaved people and others marginalized by those in power, as he weaves a narrative of American history. In his farewell message to the students he loves, Mr. Lee cautions that the nation—a set of political arrangements—may not last, but a country—a culture rooted in a place—is theirs to shape: 'An acceptance of, and pleasure in, the civilization that is your heritage, and an appreciation of that which is not native to you.' Cullen's book belongs in any American History classroom."
— Chris Winters, former principal of Greenwich High School and principal at Greenwich Country Day School
"Jim Cullen is a gift to educators. His book Best Class You Never Had is a history education manifesto that is warm, witty, engaging, powerfully prescient, and hopeful. I can't wait to use it with my students."
— James A. Percoco, History Chair, Loudoun School for Advanced Studies, Member National Teachers Hall of Fame
"Jim Cullen has written many books, but this novel might be his best because it so powerfully captures the moral imperative at the heart of why we teach and what we hope our students will learn. As the fictional Mr. Lee puts it: 'Understanding where you're coming from is the very essence of education, something you undertake to find and achieve the authentic.' Best Class You Never Had tells the story of a history teacher's final year in the classroom, but it should be read by teachers and students alike at any stage of their careers or intellectual development. It offers lessons for all of us."
— Walter B. Levis, Ethics Teacher, Ethical Culture Fieldston School