Learning through Teaching

Lew Levine, Professor, Language and Cognition
Coordinator, First-Year Seminar

It is often said that the best way to understand something is to teach it to others.  Nowhere in my teaching experience has this been more true for me than in my efforts during the past two years to teach the First-Year Seminar, a relatively new course at Hostos that seeks to help students develop the study skills they need for academic success while they learn about the city of New York.  The course, titled “A New York State of Mind: What Makes a City Great,” is divided into four thematic units: A Great City Educates; A Great City Grows; A Great City Builds; A Great City Creates.  Having been born in the Bronx, raised in a New Jersey town ten minutes from the George Washington Bridge, and a resident of the city for over 40 years, I felt I knew enough about New York to teach the course.

In order to provide students with a historical context for the material they are asked to read and write about, my colleague Lisa Tappeiner and I created a PowerPoint presentation based on “Timescapes,” a 30-minute film that is shown only at the Museum of the City of New York.  Preparing the PowerPoint was, for me, a turning point; it not only provided me with a stronger lens through which to understand the city’s rich 400-year history but it gave me a base of knowledge upon which to build.

Like many New Yorkers, I knew that the Dutch were the first Europeans to establish a colony in Manhattan (from the Lenape name “Mannahatta,” meaning island of many hills), which the Dutch  named New Amsterdam, but I never realized the enduring influence the Dutch had despite relinquishing the city to the English after only 40 years of control.  It was only after reading “The Source of New York’s Greatness,” an essay by the historian Russell Shorto, that I learned that under the Dutch New York was an incredibly diverse place (by 1650, 18 different languages were spoken among the 500 inhabitants of the island), that the Dutch were an extremely tolerant people (they still are), and that they fostered an entrepreneurial, free-trading culture.  These qualities, diversity, free trade, economic opportunity, and tolerance form the key elements of New York today.

I never fully understood how the city evolved, from a port city based on trade, to a manufacturing city that provided jobs to a growing immigrant population (but at a steep price, as working conditions were harsh) to a city that declined in population and image in the 1970s and 1980s only to become a growing global metropolis that is attracting a new wave of diverse immigrants, young people from all over this country, as well as 59 million tourists a year, a staggering number.

Of course, there are individuals too numerous to mention who came here and changed the city forever.  Learning about their vision and their grit (qualities we should all strive to emulate) has been particularly inspiring.  There’s De Witt Clinton.  I knew the name only because there is a high school in the Bronx named for him.  Clinton was mayor of New York, responsible for forming the commission that created Manhattan’s street grid in 1811.  Later, as governor, he supported the construction of the 363-mile Erie Canal that served to link the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, making New York City the center of trade for the entire country with the rest of the world.  And Emily Warren Roebling, whose father-in-law, John Roebling, a German immigrant, designed the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867 only to die shortly thereafter from a freak accident, leaving his son Washington Roebling to take over the project.  Washington fell terribly ill from working long hours in the caissons under the East River and could no longer supervise on-site construction.  It was Emily Warren Roebling, who taught herself calculus and engineering so that she could convey her husband’s instructions to the other engineers and “sandhogs,” who in the 19th century must have found it highly unusual to take orders from a woman.  But without her efforts the Brooklyn Bridge might not have been completed.  Next time you walk over the bridge look for the large plaque that recognizes her great contributions.  Before learning about the amazing story behind the bridge’s creation, I would walk by the plaque and not even notice it.  Now I always stop to read it and contemplate its significance.

And what about the city’s amazing ethnic population and how and why it developed over time.

In 1826, the year Peter Minuit allegedly purchased Mannahatta from the Lenape for the equivalent of 24 dollars, 11 slaves were brought to New Amsterdam for the first time.  At the time of the American Revolution, 10,000 Blacks were here, many hoping to take advantage of the British offer to gain their freedom if they supported the British cause.  Today one-quarter (over two million) of the city’s population are black, including Africans, African-Americans and those from the rest of the Americas and the Caribbean.  Or people of the Jewish faith who numbered 2,000 in the 1830s.  They had three synagogues, two in which services were conducted in German, the other in Spanish.  I don’t think schools in those days didn’t hold classes in order to observe the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Teaching about New York has made me an avid reader of the Metropolitan section of “The New York Times,” a part of the paper I used to gloss over.  It has motivated me to attend scholarly talks at various New York institutions such as the New York Historical Society, the 92nd Street Y and the Museum of the City of New York.  Leading field trips for First-Year Seminar students to various parts of the city has compelled me to do my homework beforehand so that I can better explain the places we visit.  And walking around the city, something I have always enjoyed doing, has taken on a deeper meaning and resulted in my looking more closely, asking more questions, and being filled with a kind of wonderment at it all.

Teaching “A New York State of Mind: What Makes a City Great” has been a humbling, life-affirming experience.  It also highlights a central paradox of all learning: The more you learn, the more you want to learn, and the more you know, the more you realize how little you really do know.  But the great thing is that I’m here, that I can continue teaching and learning about New York, the city I love and appreciate today much more than I ever did.


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