Discovering Histories of Ed NYC

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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Center on History and Education

Teachers College, Columbia University

Discovering Histories of Education in NYC

This past spring semester, I had the privilege of being Professor’s Weneck’s Graduate Research Assistant for her course, “History of Education in New York City.” Having taken the class myself some semesters ago, it was interesting to observe the different focus the course has taken.  Still about the history of education in NYC, the course has moved away from spotlighting different school populations in the city based on the secondary literature to a research-oriented focus that immerses students in archival research to document (in the form of digital exhibitions) narratives about teaching and learning in neighborhoods across the city.

Over the course of the semester, students were challenged to broaden their understanding of what is meant by the “history of education” in New York City: Whose history is being documented?  And, what exactly constitutes “education”? Professor Weneck encouraged the class to tackle those questions by considering the history of education outside the public school and addressing how understudied sites of learning can shed light on the learning needs and objectives of the communities and populations they serve.  This focus led to an in-depth look at The New York Public Library (NYPL) and the development of its branch libraries as sites of teaching and learning in city neighborhoods that have changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.  Far from being fully documented, the histories of the branch libraries record and reflect those changes and offer a new vantage point from which to study the educational histories of diverse New York City populations.

It was remarkable to follow students’ work on the project as they studied the archival records of NYPL branch libraries and documented how the branches, operating as quintessential local institutions, met the educational needs of the changing populations they served.   The process was exciting to watch as students overcame their initial anxieties and uncertainties about doing archival research, took pleasure in the process of discovering the center of their work in the archives, and based on their exploration of branch library records, shaped new narratives and perspectives about the history of education in New York City. 

The course-long project affirmed my belief in the power of history to awaken our curiosity about how we learn and to reimagine the city itself as a classroom without walls.