In Praise of the Field Trip

On a chilly, grey Chicago afternoon not that long ago, I drove to the Pullman National Monument. The rain was intermittent and traffic thin. I was a tourist in my own city, pulling into an empty parking lot and wondering if others found nineteenth century labor history equally fascinating. Short answer: very few people were about. I chatted with informed and eager guides, taking in the museum and its displays. I took photos and a lengthy walk in the neighborhood. Even with a mask, it was a breath of fresh air, strolling through the brickwork and thinking of American history, of the drama and stories that leave legacies all around us. It was a self-assigned field trip, a much-needed respite from the current day-to-day.

We have been adapting and pivoting, quickly and efficiently, to zoom, webex and a host of other technologies. We see each other virtually, email and DM while appearing engaged no matter how many screens are in front of us. For many, boundaries between work and home are now permeable, leading to frequent concerns about productivity. When is it OK to stop reading emails? Can I put down my phone? When we finally do get together – and the face to face meetings are finally starting to be more frequent – it is exciting, encouraging and wildly important. Different and yet strangely familiar. Meeting people in real life reinforces the impact of real life. This seems especially true to me when it comes to history, the threads of actions and reactions that have brought us to today.

Field trips are a part of our education. To zoos, museums, parks or historic sites – we all recall the trips here, the bus rides there, the boring and the memorable. Some kids enjoyed going to the aquarium while others hated it. A good field trip is not about passive sensation; it’s informed engagement. That kind of field trip makes an impression. It catches us at the right moment with an experience that deepens learning and understanding.

When I taught history, I tried to incorporate field trips into the course. Sometimes it was a group visit. Other times I worked with individual students or teams to help them explore ways to gain a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. We did not call them field trips. Instead, it was “experiential” or research.

My graduate education called for research at different sites, a challenge and unexpected blessing. For example, my initial trip to the Illinois Historical Society to review the papers of “Uncle Joe” Cannon was exciting archive work. It became an exploration of Illinois history, a wander through collections and books of related interest. It sparked curiosity and better questions. And if you are curious, Cannon was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, a long-time congressman from Danville, Illinois, a cigar chewing politico who was very effective and did not leave much written history. The Nancy Pelosi of the first decade of the twentieth century, Cannon’s legacy includes the existence many American citizens (he steadfastly resisted immigration controls – not from an inclusive ideology but rather the demands of manufacturers who wanted cheap labor) and a major federal office building in DC.

The visit to Pullman was multi-layered, conjuring up memories of my teaching the Pullman Strike, researching the event, and imagined scenarios of the site back in the day. George Pullman created the Pullman Car, the luxury railroad car that revolutionized train travel. He envisioned his factory and small city as an ideal community, where laborers could be formed into productive American citizens. It flourished in the early 1890s as Chicago blossomed into America’s city, culminating in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The town has attractive housing and the remnants of a massive industrial plant are still visible.

Pullman’s dream was not to be sustainable. A financial panic and depression quickly and radically changed the dynamics. Pullman laid off workers but did not reduce the rent in his carefully designed factory homes. Labor pushed back, leading to a strike, a lockout and strike breakers, which in turn inflamed passions and politics, inciting local violence. Pullman workers found sympathetic strikers throughout the railroad industry, leading to nationwide violence and federal intervention. It’s gripping history, nationally and in a particular Chicago kind of way.

I cannot feel that through screens. It takes reading, reflection, and most importantly getting out and walking around, using my imagination and thinking.

Tired of living via platforms and phones? I recommend that you plan and take a field trip. While it may not make you feel like a kid again, if you do it well, you’ll remember what it’s like to be a student and the excitement of seeing something in person, in real life. I would wager that you will find it entertaining and enjoyable, too.

David Potash

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