Mundelein High's McCarthy blends history with today's issues

Mundelein High School history teacher Neil McCarthy's classes resemble episodes of the public affairs show “The McLaughlin Group.”

McCarthy doesn't lecture so much as he hosts a conversation about history, current events and the patterns that link them.

Take a discussion about lead smelting in Peru from an AP World History class that occurred this past May.

After the class read an article about the impact the work has on the environment and the indigenous population's health, McCarthy directed the teens to talk with each other about what they read.

And then he challenged them to share real-world solutions, picking student after student in a fast-paced round robin.

“Go, Ruby,” he told one girl.

“Taz, what do you think?” he asked another a few minutes later.

The kids eagerly gave their ideas. McCarthy responded with encouragement and more questions.

McCarthy's students don't just learn. They debate, in a style right out of Plato's “Republic.”

And that's the way McCarthy wants it.

“I think the facts and the names are really important, but they're secondary to the primary goal, which is analysis. World history as sort of an intellectual exercise,” McCarthy explained. “In other words, you use the wisdom of history to explain today's events, which are incredibly complex.”

It's this approach to teaching that led McCarthy — a 40-year-old Evanston resident — to be selected by the Daily Herald as a “Top Teacher,” a designation for suburban educators who distinguish themselves in their daily duties and beyond.

Mundelein High Communications Director Ron Girard praised McCarthy as a role model who encourages students to be excited about their learning.

“Neil engages his students to do critical thinking in all levels of courses,” Girard said in an email. “The 'why' is most important for him.”

McCarthy has taught at Mundelein High for 14 years. He led five classes this past year: AP World History, AP European History, World Studies, Modern Latin America and America at War.

McCarthy isn't as outlandish or prone to ridiculous political predictions as the eponymous host of the “McLaughlin Group,” but he is no less entertaining.

He strives to connect with his students by talking about a current situation or an important concept and then jumping back to history to discuss it.

“How do you make the Sumerians relevant to a 14 year old?” McCarthy said.

With a slightly graying beard, McCarthy speaks with a hint of an Irish accent that reveals his ancestry and, in part, his schooling.

After earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, he got a master's degree in education at Trinity College in Dublin. A second master's degree in European and Latin American History followed from the University of Illinois in Chicago.

McCarthy came to teaching after working in finance. He was led to the classroom not by a lifelong dream of educating youth but by a love for world travel, which he thought a teacher's schedule would allow.

He travels frequently, and uses his experiences and photographs from those trips in his lessons.

It's one of the reasons he was drawn to teaching history. Another was his family, particularly a father who told him of wartime life in England.

“Storytelling is what it was,” McCarthy said. “But they were real stories.”

And to McCarthy, history is more than names and dates and locations in a textbook. It's a living, evolving collection of stories.

“It's an ongoing debate,” he said. “And (the students) should be involved in the debate.”

His students appreciate that educational philosophy.

Take the aforementioned “Taz,” otherwise known as incoming sophomore Melissa Tazioli. She's the third Tazioli to have McCarthy as a teacher.

She follows her sister, Margaret, who graduated in 2011, and her brother, Johnny, who graduated in 2012.

“He doesn't just teach history to us,” Melissa said. “He makes history fun.”

McCarthy's classroom is decorated with foreign flags, statuettes from China and other Asian nations and other knickknacks of overseas origin.

They help stir the conversation. They help McCarthy engage his students, few of whom have ever been to the nations they're learning about.

“I couldn't care less if they remember who Robespierre was,” McCarthy said, referring to the French revolutionary. “But if they can relate that to something they already know, and if they can tell me why it's relevant ... then I know my life has purpose. Then I know I've done my job.”

Neil McCarthy’s tips ...

Curriculum vitae

  Neil McCarthy left the world of finance to teach history. He figured a teacher’s schedule would allow him more time to travel. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
Mundelein High School teacher Neil McCarthy challenges students to share real-world solutions to problems they’ve learned about in history class, picking student after student in a fast-paced round robin. Photos by Gilbert R. Boucher II/gboucher@dailyhera
  Mundelein High School teacher Neil McCarthy talks to freshman Tara Lawson after class. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Mundelein High School teacher Neil McCarthy doesn’t just lecture to students so much as he hosts a conversation about history. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Mundelein High School teacher Neil McCarthy aims to make history relevant to today’s students. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
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