From the Teaching column in the November 2001 Perspectives

Getting Lost—and Getting Home in History

Leon Fink, November 2001

Having just completed my first year of teaching at a quintessential urban university, I am trying to take stock of what makes my students tick. Arriving at the University of Illinois at Chicago following a 23-year stint at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I chuckled before reading out the ethnically polyglot roll of my first-year seminar, "Community and Conflict: A Local Approach to Modern U.S. History," this past semester. "Forgive me if I mispronounce your name the first time through," I joked to the class, "I'm used to a roll that begins with Rhett and Scarlett." I knew I was in for trouble when no one laughed; they didn't get the reference. Not only was I not in North Carolina anymore, it was not clear where I could turn for common points of cultural and historical reference with my students.

Frankly, it is easy to join in the ritual hand-wringing that accompanies any faculty get-together whether at UIC, UNC, or virtually any other center of higher learning: our students lack the basic orientation to the world that we expect of them. The students in my first-year seminar, for example, had trouble placing the selected texts that we were reading—in order, Altina Waller's Feud, L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown, James Gregory's American Exodus, Alan Ehrenhalt's The Lost City, Charles Payne I've Got the Light of Freedom, Le Ly Hayslip's When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, and Robert Bruno's Steelworker Alley—within the larger narrative flow of the period. How can I possibly reach students for whom not only Gone With the Wind but William Jennings Bryan and even the Gulf of Tonkin had disappeared into a veritable dustbin of history? I panicked throughout the first week of term.

As educational psychologist Sam Wineburg notes in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Temple University Press, 2001), professional complaints about student learning are hardly new. Summarizing successive generations of educational research, Wineburg wryly suggests, "The whole world has turned upside down in the past 80 years but one thing has seemingly remained the same: Kids don't know history.. National assessments may tell us what students don't know. But we remain woefully ignorant of what they do know and how they come to know it."

In one assignment I tried out in the second week of my seminar, I got a hint of what Wineburg may be referring to. Since the local studies we were reading invariably accentuate the intersection of place and time, I asked my students to describe for me—in no more than two pages—a place that had been special in their time. I was surprised less by the subject matter than the quality of their responses. Students who appeared tongue-tied and inarticulate in negotiating more distant texts suddenly snapped to with what seemed an inbred and near-universal authority.

Not surprisingly, most settled on some image associated with their own family homes. One student selected his basement. "If you were to look around my basement, you would notice all of the old, black-and-white photos of my family and my dad's family, in the barrio of the Philippines. Also of interest would be the 'Happy Birthday' sign that has been hanging since, probably when I was a baby." Like the image in the Philippines photo, ancestral homes attracted the attention of two students of East Indian background. On a return visit, wrote one, "Everything in the house looked very different. My Grandma had a bed that my sister and I used to share. At that time, even after both of us were in bed, there was still room left for her to sit.. But this time it looked like a crib to me." "In my uncle's house," affirmed the second student, "there is a huge terrace from which one can see the sun rise in the morning while drinking a cup of hot tea."

By way of contrast with her suburban homestead, a young woman invoked her dorm room. "But I do not consider that to be my real home. When I walk into my room, I do not give my mother a kiss hello and see how she and my brother's day has been. [sic].I may have all my clothes, pictures, and posters up in my dorm room but for the most part I do not feel it is my home. There are two big differences—one being my fish are not here and the other being my family is not here with me."

A few students supplemented the mold of "home" memories with more idiosyncratic dream locations. For one student, it was the backstage scene shop and dressing room of his high school theater: "There were always sets to help build, scenery flats to paint and hang from the overhead flies. But the real beauty of the place was the first breath of air from the dressing room that was being used again after the closing curtain on the last show. I'll never forget [that] stale smell of sweat mixed with sweet ambient face powder. I associate that place with the pleasant anticipation.of being the first one to walk into a reflective peace." Another student regularly found greatest comfort in her bathtub, "where I go when I'm frustrated, exhausted, sad, sick, yearning, confused, dirty, or just want to be left alone."

Alongside the specific images of place were the epiphanies of childhood. A student who had grown up in Boise, Idaho, recalled, "We lived in a housing development where all the houses looked the same; small three-bedroom homes with a one-car garage. During the hot months of the summer after Dad came home from work, we would drive down to Veterans Memorial park to go swimming in the river. That was the highlight of our days." A site within a state forest in Northwest Michigan offered "the pinnacle" of "what the camping ideal is about," for one young man: "It is not a formal campground but literally miles from civilization, and a 4-by-4 is essential. The area offers a thick pine forest, but also ample clearings to set up equipment. A short distance away there is a larger clearing perfectly suited for a large bonfire. At the edge of this clearing is a 20–30 foot ravine with a swift, clear stream flowing at the bottom. Nature's splendor is personified when the perfect backdrop is offered on a clear evening. A subtle sunset bursting its colors through the sky, fading to a dark sky, dominated with heavy clusters of stars not seen in urban areas."

For another, place served as a surrogate for emotional loss. "My mother always took me to San Antonio to visit her family, brothers and sisters. I looked forward to riding the Greyhound from Chicago to San Antonio. The part I enjoyed the most was making stops at different cities to pick up and drop off passengers. I enjoyed waiting in the bus terminals at two o'clock in the morning so the bus would get cleaned and filled up with gas so that we could continue our journey. I lost my mother to cancer about two years five months ago. I still find myself lonely at times and I cry for her when I am reminded of the moments we shared."

While growing up, students had clearly found refuge in a great variety of special places. Now, in straightforward, crystal-clear prose, they demonstrated a thorough and detailed knowledge of the selected place and set it neatly in the context of their own personal, and effectively historical, development. Just as important, the writing exercise connected in unanticipated ways to the content of the books we would be reading. If detachment and subsequent yearning for reattachment to "home" was the explicit theme of the Wizard of Oz, American Exodus, and The Lost City, then it also rippled as a powerful connecting chord through every other text we covered during the semester. Through immigration, migration, mobility, modernization, as well as war and economic upheaval, the defense of place and nostalgia for places and times past leapt out as a central preoccupation of the historical and literary figures we were confronting. What began as a way of getting to know the students in the end uncovered a vital theme of American social and cultural history.

Moreover, as this exercise taught me, there was no shortage of intellectual potential in the students settled in front of me. My job was (and remains) to help them connect the power of their inner fire to the discipline of an academic subject that extends beyond subjective experience. To be successful, they needed to reach beyond themselves. But so did I. Behind blank stares and weak reading backgrounds, these were young (and one or two not so young) adults who had already experienced—and already reckoned with—a serious chunk of history.

To be sure, my students don't always visibly bring such wisdom to the classroom table. Typically, I observe occasional flashes of insight surrounded by prolonged periods of mere attentiveness. Even the most sensitive history teachers must sometimes despair at the widespread ignorance of the American past. But awareness of, and respect for, the private histories of our students encourage us to try again and remind us that, "after all, tomorrow is another day."

—Leon Fink is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and past vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division.