To me, the heart of our trip this year is social studies: history, civics and government, sociology, anthropology, economics, etc. The rest of the subjects are important, of course, but understanding human history and our place on this giant ball of rock revolving around a burning sun strikes me as the primary reason to travel. As a result, much of our travels have involved learning about the stories and histories of the places in which we find ourselves. In essence, this entire trip is a social studies class.
In Hyde Park, New York, we learned a great deal about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Presidential Library, FDR’s childhood (and adult) home at Hyde Park, and Eleanor’s retreat at Val Kill.FDR’s home. The palm trees, by the way, were to show off that they had a greenhouse in which they could keep them alive through the winter.
At Mystic Seaport we learned so much — about the shipping industry, about skilled craftsmanship in the early days of the USA, about what life was like in an American seashore community in the first half of the 19th century. We spent long periods of time talking with the Seaport’s blacksmith, its cooper, and its printer and learning about how they learned and performed their skilled work.
In Newport, Rhode Island we explored the Gilded Age with tours of three Gilded Age Newport “cottages.”
At Minuteman National Historic Park we learned all about how the Revolutionary War really began with the battles of Lexington and Concord (and discussed which — Lexington or Concord — should be recorded as the first actual “battle”).
At Plimoth Plantation we learned all about the Plimoth settlement, as well as the Native American community that pre-dated the Plimoth settlement at the same location.
At Salem we were immersed in all things witch-trials, and we also learned quite a bit about the shipping history of the community, and the incredible wealth that the shipping industry brought to the town’s early history (we also saw a lot of bad dioramas, and to this day, I can infuriate my kids by saying nothing more than “More Weight”). The best of Salem’s offerings, however, included a reenactment of the trial of Bridget Bishop.
In Maine we learned about lighthouses and their importance to shipping safety. We also visited World War I and II military installations in the Portland Harbor area, and talked about our family history: Mike’s parents were married in Portland in late December of 1941 after their planned wedding back in New York was delayed due to Pearl Harbor (Mike’s dad had been drafted in the run-up to the U.S.’s involvement in the war and he was stationed in Portland Harbor).
At Ft. Ticonderoga we learned about the fort’s history in the French & Indian Wars and the Revolutionary War.
In Cooperstown, NY we learned about the history of baseball, including, of course, its role in the desegregation of American society with the bravery of Jackie Robinson (can you think of anything more timely at the current moment than learning about Black players’ roles in helping to advance racial justice in America).
In Seneca Falls, NY we learned about first wave feminism, the schism over whether the 15th Amendment should have included the vote for women, the intersectionality of Frederick Douglass’s roles in both the Abolition movement and the early feminist movement, and the history of women’s struggle for equality since the first Seneca Falls convention.
Even in Niagara Falls, ONT we learned about the development of American and Canadian tourism, and their economic effects.
Since we left the northeast, we’ve learned about westward expansion and the Wild West in a visceral way, as we’ve traced the routes of westward expansion from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Oregon Trail. We’ve learned about Native American history and discussed the problematic legacy of European destruction of Native American culture — sometimes intentionally, sometimes less intentionally. We’ve talked so much about racism and its legacy — and of course all of that was informed by current events this summer, and the different experience we had in the aftermath of Charlottesville being in Montana and Wyoming compared to what our experience would have been like back in much more multicultural Montclair, NJ. We’ve learned about the Great Fire of Chicago and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. We learned about the history of the Amish and Mennonite religions in both Europe and America. Even in Las Vegas, we not only learned about Prohibition and organized crime (as well as efforts to fight organized crime), but we got some first hand education in the economics of the casino/hotel business.
All of these experiences — and more — have led to conversation and discussions in the car about the meaning, significance, and context of these places and events.In addition, we’ve been listening to history-based podcasts. Most recently, we’ve been listening to the Washington Post’s Presidential podcast and using that to help contextualize what we’ve seen in terms of presidential history (yes, pun intended). Once we have a relatively long stop, we are going to work on working events we’ve encountered into a timeline (the kids’ self-made “history books” to help connect events that seem disparate at times. But already, the coolest part, for me, has been watching the kids realize how many different streams and threads of history are happening simultaneously: westward expansion and early feminism and the Abolition movement and industrialization, and so on. For me, it’s in making those connections that history really does come alive. We’ve also seen — viscerally — how history can and does cycle and repeat itself. For me, the most concrete example of this was looking at the recently built (completed in 2007) Castillo di Amorosa in Napa Valley (the passion project of a wealthy Napa Valley vintner) and comparing an example of our modern Gilded Age to the Newport mansions of the late 19th century’s First Gilded Age. Just today in Sedona the kids made the connection between an old Buffalo Bill show sign and visiting the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody, Wyoming.
I can’t think of a better social studies and American History education than seeing our country’s history, up close and personal. Pretty soon we’re heading toward Tennessee and then the Old South, where our focus will be on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Era. I can’t wait! We’ll wrap up the domestic portion of our trip in DC, which should cement so much of what we’ve done as we look at the monuments and history through new, more educated, eyes.