ERIC Identifier: ED460213
Publication Date: 2001-12-00
Author: Danzer, Gerald A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Making a Community Interesting to Itself: Providing a Social
Education through Urban History and Neighborhood Studies. ERIC Digest.
The formal study of cities in American schools is a thing of the past. Urban
studies courses, often accompanied by field experiences, have largely
disappeared from the curriculum, especially in secondary schools. But, as is
often the case with good ideas from the past, community studies and an urban
focus are returning to the social studies. This digest reviews urban studies
from a historical perspective. Then it offers some suggestions for educators
anxious to reconsider the basic idea: using the story of the city, especially
its neighborhoods and suburbs, as the basis for sustained investigation in
social studies classes. In the process the city itself becomes a document, a
primary source that students read as a text.
THE VALUE OF STUDYING CITIES
We live in the age of cities.
It is estimated that in 2050 six billion of Earths nine billion people will live
in metropolitan areas. For students, the best avenue to an urban awareness is
the study of a particular city, usually the one nearby. And, to really know a
city, a student must experience it firsthand. Book learning or virtual reality
will not suffice, especially when we reflect on the deeper significance of
education and ask a century old question: How can we make a community
interesting to itself? The query is one that the sculptor Lorado Taft raised
dozens of times in the early twentieth century. It is also an important question
for educators who know that engaging the interest of their students is a
prerequisite for effective teaching.
When framing an answer, we must keep in mind that the true test of a social
studies education is what students do with their knowledge throughout their
lives. In the decades of acute urban crisis in the United States, especially the
1960s and 1970s, scholars and educators paid a lot of attention to helping
students connect with urban settings. Schools were to be a part of the battle to
save Americas cities and to build strong local communities everywhere in the
nation. Then a series of forces changed the direction of American education. The
back to basics movement, with its increasing public insistence on academic
standards, often narrowly focused on factual knowledge or academic skills; and
the increasing detachment of schools from their communities, with the eclipse of
the neighborhood school, turned the social studies toward reliance on basic
textbooks. Field trips and study outside the school walls became less frequent
in the 1980s and 1990s. Courses in urban studies, local history, and the built
environment faded away, but never completely disappeared. Now, in the new
century, old questions are being asked once again. How can we make a community
interesting to itself? In which ways can schools best help their students
prepare for a lifetime of learning? Why are cities so appealing? How should
schools connect to their communities?
The core of the issue is that, in 2001, cities are back. It is now
fashionable to live downtown and to have roots in old neighborhoods. Even the
new suburbs, founded in the 1960s and 1970s, are realizing that they have a
history, distinctive elements worthy of preservation. The aging baby boom
generation is discovering that on the old crabgrass frontier a local character
has emerged which should be handed on to the next generation. A movement called
the New Urbanism has brought a new appreciation for the virtues, social,
cultural, and ecological, of the old urban neighborhoods. Schools are beginning
to react to the newfound interest in cities, hoping to find curricular space in
history and geography courses for in-depth study of the local environment.
Indeed, schools are now considering how much time they should devote to the
study of local places and community institutions.
SOURCE MATERIALS FOR TEACHING URBAN STUDIES
With local studies in the schools returning to vogue, a raft of old curriculum
materials can still be found in the resource centers of many schools. The last
major survey of the field quoted extensively from various projects and key
publications. Part one of this helpful volume, Using History in the Classroom
(Metcalf & Downey, 1982), discusses the methods and sources for doing local
history, with an emphasis on material culture. Part two focuses on using local
sources to teach the various social studies disciplines: sociology, economics,
and political science. Part three gives useful directions on setting up a local
history course and provides some excellent examples. The major limitation of the
book is its curious neglect of geography.
Another volume (Kyvig & Marty, 2000), first issued in the same year by
the same publisher, addressed the general public. It has a good deal to say to
teachers, especially in the chapter Linking the Particular and the Universal. A
series of companion books in the Nearby History series (Kyvig & Marty, 2000)
continue the discussion on specific topics like schools, places of worship,
businesses, houses, public places, and local utilities.
on the Politics of Urban Development
After sampling the methods and sources used in the local studies movement,
teachers will want to dip into the rich literature on cities that forms the
bedrock on which urban studies curriculum materials are ultimately based. Two
classics come immediately to mind. Both appeared in 1961 and have remained in
print ever since. They are useful handbooks that insist that teachers and
students explore cities in person. The first, by Jane Jacobs, an articulate
resident of an old New York City neighborhood, launched a spirited attack on the
urban renewal policies put in place at that time. Much of her criticism has
since become conventional wisdom. The second book, by Lewis Mumford, made a
similar argument, but used examples from all periods of Western Civilization as
a phalanx to advance the critique.
on Urban Geography and History
Jacobs and Mumford both modeled two fundamental ways of observing the urban
environment: looking at its special arrangements and at its constantly changing
character. These central concerns of geography and history are the gateways
through which most social studies teachers have entered the field of urban
studies. A central concern of urban geographers in the past several decades has
been how the dynamic between the physical setting and human activity has been
expressed in the form and arrangement of cities and towns. Meanwhile, historians
have established a per-iodization schema for the study of urban America,
dividing the decades into the walking, streetcar, and automobile cities. Suburbs
have yet to receive due attention from both geographers and historians. From the
vantage point of 2001, the forces of sub-urbanization have triumphed. Today old
neighborhoods and downtown's are developing a suburban look. In some central
business districts, even some skyscrapers often have lawns (Hirschhorn, 1990;
A major curriculum effort sponsored by the National Endowment for the
Humanities in the 1970s and 1980s applied many of the themes from the local
studies and the urban studies movements to social education. The Chicago
Neighborhood History Project (Danzer & McBride, 1985) eventually produced
eight weeklong modules to provide guidance on how to study cities. Each module
contained daily lessons that could be mixed and matched. The resulting mosaic
curriculum design allowed the suggested lesson plans, source materials, and
student activities to be adapted to a variety of educational settings and
formats. The guiding light for this approach was that students would be engaged
in local research activities such as those featured in History Fair or History
Day projects. The daily lessons in the Chicago units provide guidance and
examples on themes like How to Read an Old Map or studying The Neighborhood as
an Art Form.
EXPLORING THE CITYSCAPE
In a very real sense, classroom
work on the urban experience should be looked upon as preparation for the direct
experience of the city itself. An important element in teacher preparation
programs and in continuing education experiences is the active exploration of
the locality of the school and the metropolitan system of which it is a part. To
help residents and visitors explore any city as a text, the urban affairs
journalist for The Louisville Courier-Journal developed a glossary of special
concepts that pointed out the nature of cities (Clay, 1980). His word game of
fronts, strips, beats, stocks, vantages, and so on remains a delightful way of
getting at essential understandings and has had a deep impact on subsequent
studies of the cityscape.
Educators often need inspiration to step outside of their assigned boxes,
encouragement to take a class on a walk or to transform the teaching enterprise
into a series of learning experiences. John R. Stilgoe (1998) provides such
support in a recent collection of essays. Outside Lies Magic begins with a
command: Get out now, not just outside, but beyond the trapE. (p. 1). Most
readers will drop the book after a few inspirational pages, hurrying to get
outside and gather some of the magic that comes from looking (p. 187). Then they
will pause for a rest and be drawn back to the essay, only to be pushed on
again, looking at familiar places with new understanding and appreciation.
The magic is this: even the most ordinary community will become interesting
to itself if we stop and look with understanding eyes. And the teacher in us all
whispers, How can we help our young people catch some of this magic? Bringing
community adventures to our students may do wonders for their sense of
belonging, of community, of stewardship, and of life itself.
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