A few years back, a colleague and I had the idea to explore local issues through the lens of history. The plan was to comb through Greenwich archives and offer insight into the major issues facing the town by bringing the past to light. We had a brainstorming session, came up with a bunch of ideas for articles, then, as often happens with big undertakings, our determination wavered. I ended up writing one of the articles, a piece about race in Greenwich based on research from Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project (which you can read here) and then shelved the idea.
But ideas don’t ever really disappear—they disperse, spread out, bounce around your head until something brand new takes shape. From my brief foray as Town Historian (self-appointed), I learned a valuable lesson about the power of local history. There’s something exciting about tackling issues in your own backyard. With so many news outlets, it’s hard to find a truly original story. But ironically, when you limit your parameters—use a microscope, not a telescope—an entirely new realm of possibilities emerges.
For their project on the Progressive Era, students in Innovation Lab are doing their own version of “muckraking,” a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt for the journalists who worked tirelessly to expose the major issues facing America at the turn of the twentieth century. These brave journalists tackled issues ranging from the unsanitary conditions of our meat factories to the corrupt business practices of monopolies.
Students have looked to local newspapers for inspiration and found some of the most pressing issues facing Greenwich. After choosing their topics, students have researched their issues, met a real live muckraker (check out the article Leslie Yager wrote after her visit to our class), contacted experts to interview, learned how to use software to make their documentary, and of course, studied the historical context of the muckrakers in order to understand how the reformers of the past confronted similar issues.
Students’ topics differ greatly, reflecting each group’s unique interests. One group is exposing the lack of regulations and oversight of local animal breeders. Another group has decided to tackle the achievement gap in Connecticut. Meanwhile, in the same classroom, other students are shining a light on wealth inequality, food insecurity, challenges facing local wildlife populations, drug abuse, and censorship in schools.
Each group is taking a microscope to their topic, seeking truth about America by closely examining one aspect of their local community. Although their topics may seem disconnected, they’re each united by the goal of the muckrakers—to investigate, educate, and persuade their audience. Luckily, they have the example of history to help them in their quest for answers.
Taking this time traveling approach to history has made me realize that sometimes the only way to see the past clearly is to look for parallels in our immediate surroundings. Only then does the past make sense; only then does the kaleidoscope of our history start to form a picture we recognize.