There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that you don't teach, and the second is that you teach exactly the same way you always have. My preference, I guess, is for the latter--on the principle that the motherfucking sonnet must go on--but I don't really find either solution satisfactory. The first strikes me as an abdication of responsibility: a statement both that normal life is no longer possible and that whatever one teaches is not, in the final analysis, particularly important. But to go on teaching, as if the world weren't ending--well, that seems insufficient.
Obviously, the world has not ended or even threatened to end during my teaching career; neither have I taught in the wake of a natural disaster or period of civil unrest (though some of my readers surely have). But while I realize how offensive it is to imply that feeling like the world is ending is comparable to living through even the shortest and most localized of crises. . . I do feel like the world is ending.
I can't really say why; I felt this way for months or a year after September 11th, and then the feeling went away. Some awful things have happened since then, and I've known people who have fallen into despair at various points along the way--so I guess now is my moment. I'm sure it will pass. But I'm not sure what to do in the meanwhile.
I teach Renaissance literature. And while I resist the idea that my subject is irrelevant to or divorced from contemporary reality (whether that sentiment is meant as a criticism or as a compliment), I'm equally reluctant to suggest that we can learn--from the past, from art--anything that has a straightforward bearing on the present. In my classroom we may discuss the different leadership styles of Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. We may analyze the ways history and language are manipulated for certain ends in The Faerie Queene. And I hope that those things allow my students to make similar analyses in other contexts. But I would never encourage them to find contemporary parallels to the things we read--and when they suggest such parallels themselves, I usually shut them down as quickly and politely as possible.
That's responsible pedagogical behavior for a lot of reasons. And yet on my own time I'm always seeing parallels and even actively seeking them out. "Omigod!" I'll tell a friend. "Listen to this passage from King James! Is he or is he not George W. Bush?"
It's one of the great joys of reading and of knowing other periods as well as most of us do--the ability to find and make those connections. They may be reductive or tendentious, but they feed our basic desire to make meaning out of our world. This isn't something I can teach my students, though I hope they experience it.
Myself, I started high school in the fall of 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Then there was the first Gulf War. But after that, through the rest of my teens and my mid-20s, nothing much seemed to happen. I felt that I was living outside of history, and I hated it. For a while I was obsessed with Watergate, and then for a much longer while with World War II. I started collecting popular music from the 1940s--mostly unremarkable stuff, musically, but I loved it. I listened to it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a time where things mattered, where even minor decisions played out against a backdrop that gave them weight and meaning.
I was wrong, I guess, about what living inside of history would be like; for the past seven years I've been pretty sure that that's where we are, but the experience hasn't brought the clarity I expected: I don't know what anything means any better now than I did before, and I'm no better able to categorize life into Things That Matter and Things That Don't; everything seems either terribly unimportant or so very important that I don't have the energy or the resources to deal with it.
So maybe it doesn't help to prepare us, knowing history and knowing literature. But when we keep on teaching the sonnet as the world is ending, maybe what we're teaching is both that it isn't actually ending--and that it's done so plenty of times before.