Tuesday, June 21, 2011
It’s about half-way through my week with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and I feel completely immersed in New York’s rich history. Earlier today, the director of the program, Thorin Tritter (who prefers we just call him Thorin—“like Cher!”) gave us a walking tour of Chinatown and the surrounding area. Thorin’s information about immigrant communities in New York was so fascinating that many New Yorkers stopped to listen in.
At the end of the walking tour, Thorin had us walk down a street full of food vendors from all over Asia—Chinatown is really a misnomer, as this community is made up of people from other Asian countries as well, such as Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. He warned us that the street would smell “different from what you’re used to,” but the sights were equally foreign to me. Produce I’ve never seen before, all kinds of fish, live and swimming in tanks or cleaned and displayed on ice, mountains of crustaceans, some recognizable, some not, and a barrel of water stuffed with live frogs. When we got to the end of the street, Thorin had a bag full of a spiky-looking fruit. He handed them out, warning, “Don’t eat too many or they’ll burn your throat!” As we were peeling and eating, he explained that he took us down that street because it was the closest we would get to knowing what it would be like for a nineteenth-century American who was not immediately descended from immigrants to visit say, an Italian or an Irish immigrant neighborhood. Walking through that neighborhood, the sights, smells, and languages spoken around you would have been unfamiliar, and in this part of the city, you would have been an outsider. He wanted us to get as close to that experience as possible. “In New York,” he explained, “we have a long history of difference.”
At the end of the walking tour, our formal activities were finished for the evening. Some students got in the 1 train to get back to Morningside Heights, where Columbia is located, but I stuck around with some students in the Greenwich Village area. We made a visit to Cooper Union, where Lincoln gave a speech in 1860. It was printed in pamphlet form and widely-circulated, garnering support for his candidacy. I loved that I was with a group of people who would independently decide to visit a place like Cooper Union.
One of my favorite aspects of this trip is the opportunity be around other students with a deeply-rooted, sincere interest in American history. Just last night, after our activities were finished for the day, we all grabbed our dinner at a local market with Columbia “Flex” dollars provided by the Gilder Lehrman Institute—basically, the equivalent of our “campus cash” and accepted at several restaurants and markets in Morningside Heights—and then ate our meals spread out on a blanket in Central Park. We stayed there until dusk chatting, but the chat wasn’t necessarily idle. Certainly we covered movies, TV shows and music, but we also had serious discussions about history in our time lounging in the park. We discussed how history is represented–or misrepresented–in the media, particularly when used in political discourse. We were by no means a politically homogenous group, but we all lamented together that politicians make poor historians, and that the general public could greatly benefit from a more nuanced approach. Having an intelligent, lively discussion amongst students of American history, unprompted by a formal classroom setting, was like a day at the spa for me. Such discussion is my idea of recreation, and it seemed to be theirs, too.
I believe that the level of care that each student takes in his or her respective major or concentration is a wonderful aspect of Assumption College. The Gilder Lehrman Institute gave me the opportunity to surround myself specifically with students most interested in American history, but at Assumption I have the opportunity to have out of the classroom, informal intellectual discussions with students of any academic discipline. I recalled my first-year orientation, where I sat engrossed in a conversation about Jane Austen with someone who became a good friend of mine over the past three years. As an education minor, I recalled unprompted debates in Charlie’s with education concentrators about the nature of public schools. Living with a sociology major this past year, I recalled the nights where we were both up late into the night, half doing our own homework, half discussing a topic where we would say to each other, “As a sociology major, how would you interpret this…” or, “you can appreciate this as a history major…” One of my other roommates inadvertently convinced me to be a Women’s Studies minor with our own late-night discussions about gender. Assumption has an atmosphere that encourages students to take their areas of study seriously, and to keep thinking and discussing when we leave the classroom. As an officer in AC Allies, I see it in our meetings. It’s common to hear someone begin their contribution to the conversation with, “I learned this in a class…” In short, Assumption as an institution communicates to us that these aren’t just idle facts to be stuffed into our heads for the sake of a degree. These subjects matter.
I’m looking forward to the rest of this week. We’ll be hearing from some well-respected and prominent historians of the Civil War, and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say and the sorts of questions my peers will come up with. I’ll check in again on Friday night!