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Teaching Boston History Beyond the Revolution

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
June 1, 2018

We are fortunate to be one of the many institutions of higher education located in Boston, Massachusetts, a place teeming with history at every turn. Each September, thousands of students descend on this college town, often having learned in their K-12 experiences the history of the American Revolution from the Boston Tea Party to Paul Revere’s midnight ride. On a previous college visit or when they arrive for orientation, they may walk the well-marked Freedom Trail with their family, visiting King’s Chapel, stopping for lunch at Faneuil Hall, and climbing the stairs of the Bunker Hill Monument. This leaves many students with a sense that they know the history of the place they will call home for the next four or five years.

In Northeastern’s Center of Community Service, we take a deeper dive into Boston history with many of our students as a way to scratch the surface of Boston’s history that is not often covered in their high school US History class. We want students to understand the rich and complex history of Boston, and to think about how key historical events created the city we now inhabit. We also take the time to educate students about the history of our campus; how Northeastern grew from a small evening program run out of the nation’s first YMCA in 1898 to the global research institution it is today. We share this with students to prepare them to engage with our local communities. We want students to think critically about how historic events shaped Boston, as well as how our own institution has impacted the neighborhoods surrounding our campus.

We engage students in this history in a number of ways. For students participating in our Northeastern University Alliance of Civically Engaged Students (NU|ACES) program, our staff prepares student leaders to deliver trainings during our immersive Welcome Week program and in subsequent monthly meetings throughout the year. We introduce Boston history through a fun timeline icebreaker, giving each student a Boston fact and asking them to order themselves chronologically. Our timeline activity is best done in groups of 20-25 students, with the first student acknowledging the indigenous Massachusetts and Wampanoag tribes who inhabited the land and with the last student representing the 2004 Red Sox World Series win where they finally broke the 84 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino’. This fun and engaging activity sets the stage for us to zero in on key historical events that impact the Boston we see today. We spend time diving in to 1930s federal housing policy, and how the historical practice of redlining still impacts Boston neighborhoods today. We look closely at the busing crisis of the 1970s and how the effects of that failed integration program impact our current school system. While we can only offer so much depth in 1-2 hour training sessions, we share links and event information for students who want to learn more. Northeastern library offers extensive archives of Boston’s history, and partners to run an annual Neighborhood Matters series, which many of our students choose to attend.

In our Service-Learning program, our Street-Team members lead classes or groups of students on neighborhood walking tours, with history of each local neighborhood embedded in the tour. Our Roxbury tour highlights influential individuals and families for whom many streets are named including the Dudley and Ruggles families of the 1600s, Melnea Cass, a civil rights activist in the early 1900s, and Malcolm X, who lived with family in the 1940s. These tours embody our Center’s asset-based approach, highlighting the many resources that can be found in our local neighborhoods. The tour guides identify and point out schools, churches, nonprofits, public art, community centers and more. We also highlight historical figures who made a positive impact in their community as a way to send a message that the strongest impact will most often come from the strengths within the community.

Each year, our colleague Mark Este trains several hundred students about the history of civic engagement in higher education. In this interactive training, he begins by having students think about the original purpose of higher education in Europe in the 1400s and how that purpose has shifted over the course of history: from enlightenment to vocational training to advancing research to developing active and engaged citizens. In his session, he ties in the history of Northeastern. From what began as a vocational program called the Evening Institute for Younger Men in 1898, Northeastern grew dramatically through the 20th century to become a large residential campus in the 1980s, and then became increasingly selective in the last twenty years.  Mark introduces the concept of ‘town-gown’ early in the session, and asks students to think about how relationships might change as institutions shift in purpose, size, structure and population.

We strongly believe that teaching history of place is critical for preparing students to effectively engage in the community. We want them to understand how Boston has changed over the years, and to better understand the city through the lens of a resident, rather than a tourist on a extended vacation here. We want students to see themselves as community members, and to teach them how to engage civically in the place that they call home during their time at Northeastern.


Hilary Sullivan, Director of Co-Curricular Service Programs, Center of Community Service (CCS), Northeastern University

Becca Berkey, Director of Service-learning, Center of Community Service (CCS), Northeastern University