Teacher of the Issue: Paul Fitzgerald


J. Steele

Paul Fitzgerald brings both exciting and controversial topics to his classes.

Jackie Steele, Staff Writer

Paul Fitzgerald, a 16-year veteran psychology and history teacher at Miramonte, was raised in El Cerrito, California during the 1950s in a working class family. His parents were teens during the depression, his mother graduated from college at just 19 years of age and his father didn’t go at all. Despite the fact that his family was fairly poor, Fitzgerald was given an intellectual foundation filled with books and insightful perspective.

The political and cultural era Fitzgerald grew up in greatly shaped who he is and how he views specific issues. He reflects on his childhood during the ‘50s as a time of heavy government propaganda.

“We grew up thinking that America was perfect, you never questioned what was happening,” he said. “The propaganda made everyone so naive.”

This changed for Fitzgerald at age 11, when he remembers watching some of the first civil rights protests in the South on TV, which fought for African Americans to have voting rights.

“I was outraged,” he said. “This was America; these kinds of things weren’t supposed to be happening. Everyone should have had these rights if America was the place it claimed to be.”

This movement, especially the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr., is what first sparked Fitzgerald’s critical thinking.

After completing high school at College Park, Fitzgerald went on to double major in History and Psychology at UC Berkeley. He had become extremely familiar with the city of Berkeley while taking both clarinet and piano lessons there during his childhood.

While at Cal, the issues being debated, and often times fought over, left a strong impression on him and motivated him to pursue a deeper understanding of history, and become involved with political activism.

Fitzgerald recalls Israeli Jews and Arabs yelling at each other across campus about political tension and conflicts between the Arab League and Israel, and Black Panthers arguing with white people about the civil rights movement no longer being nonviolent.

“Everyone knew of these issues in such great detail, they had so much knowledge behind their arguments,” Fitzgerald said. “I just felt like a spectator. These controversies are what made me start studying history in greater depth; they challenged my values.”

His greatest political involvement was protesting the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. Fitzgerald was vehemently against the war because he saw it as an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.

“My naive purity about government being good shattered with the civil rights movement. With the Vietnam War it was much easier to go against the convention,” he said.

“At first I wasn’t sure, but then I saw that something was wrong with the situation. After the awful things that happened to people in the South during the ‘50s, you see people, including women and children, being bombed by American planes. This war didn’t represent the America Kennedy spoke of.”

This issue became much more personal however, when he was drafted to go to Vietnam. Fitzgerald refused to go, and decided he would rather spend five years in federal prison than fight.

“I was afraid of dying, but mostly afraid that I would be a good soldier,” he said. “I didn’t want to destroy myself, and I especially didn’t want to be molded into a soldier.”

The thought of becoming a soldier discouraged him from fighting, but Fitzgerald refused mostly on existential principle: “I believe that you are what you do, and that you should live the life you believe,” he said. “I wanted to stay true to my beliefs, and I knew that going to fight would have been the biggest form of hypocrisy.”

By the time the courts got around to prosecuting him, the war had ended and Fitzgerald was able to avoid prison time.

“Those I knew who did serve the sentence came back from prison fearful,” he said. “It took away their souls, their sense of life and destroyed their idealism and passion.”

After his days at Berkeley, Fitzgerald attended graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he first became interested in teaching while leading an outward-bound program on outdoor educational projects for high school seniors.

Fitzgerald then went to Harvard to do advanced work for a year, during which time he was enrolled in a non-degree program, and took a graduate English course on Shakespeare and two graduate history courses.

Fitzgerald began his teaching career in Denver, after which he taught in Chicago, Costa Mesa and finally Orinda, where he has taught AP US History, AP European History and Psychology. His fascination with different viewpoints has greatly influenced him, as well as his teaching style.

“I love reading criticism of authors, especially letters to editors that take a stand and the editor replies with his or her own opinions,” Fitzgerald said. “I find so much value in the give and take of intellectual debate, and really try to incorporate that in my classes to make them more dynamic. I like to focus on the abstract and theoretical, over purely factual teachings. I want my students to take risks.”

In his AP European History class, which is a course that primarily consists of sophomores, Fitzgerald works to make his students see that history is more than just facts.

“History is taking facts to make a point,” he said. “There is no objective history, just as there is no objective photo. It’s about the reasons behind the history.”

Psychology, a course that Fitzgerald has fought to keep open only to seniors, creates a sense of camaraderie among each senior class.

“A lot of what we study are things that most seniors go through, and I believe it creates a bond for each class, as something that only they experience together, it holds us together.”

The class itself is an intro course, and Fitzgerald hopes it will encourage students to continue to pursue psychology in college. There are numerous controversial topics discussed and debated throughout the course of the year, involving different theorists and their diverging interpretations.

“For both my history and psychology classes, I don’t care what side my students take, I just want them to be thinking,” Fitzgerald said.

The irony of his methods is not lost on Fitzgerald.

“When I grew up, critical thinking was not taught or encouraged,” he said. “Now, I teach my students to always question. It’s blasé now, everyone is taught to be critical. Today’s generation has a much greater sense of evils than mine did, and I try to ensure that there is a balance of healthy skepticism, not just blind distrust in any establishment.”