Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Reflections of The Henry Ford, NEH, and the Industrial Revolution

January 15, 2019
Henry Ford 3
Matthew (third from left) and workshop colleagues visit the Roundhouse and hands-on turntable. 

In the summer of 2017 I had the opportunity to study at The Henry Ford through the National Endowment for the Humanities American History and Culture Workshop, “America’s Industrial Revolution at The Henry Ford.” As a history instructor, the workshop had numerous benefits, most importantly, the opportunity to work with an excellent and diverse team of educators. Too often as teachers, we are overwhelmed with lesson planning and so many other tasks, that there is little time in the school year to collaborate with master teachers in our field. This workshop provided me one of the greatest opportunities to work directly with some of the finest teachers I have known in my ten plus years as a public educator. 

The opportunity to visit The Henry Ford is like no other workshop experience I know. The Henry Ford helps bring history to life. The training consisted of studying the development of modern technology and its scientific and social impact on American society from as early as colonial settlement through the early 1900s. In our tours of the grounds, we met with numerous museum staff who explained the purpose and effect of each invention, from the Spinning Jenny to the steam engine. The workshop’s guides took their time to discuss how life, from the structure of the family to that of the labor force, changed as a result of these innovations.  Our team of teachers were able to go behind the scenes at the museum and actually get a hands-on experience working with a replica of a Model T Ford and viewing the notes and journals of some of America’s top scientists, such as Thomas Edison. At one point we visited the replica of Edison’s lab, viewing and discussing each project and item that shaped the life’s work of that inventor.

Moreover, the time in lecture with the workshop’s guest speakers was of equal benefit. The Henry Ford provided specialized lectures on the history and cultural effects of the American Industrial Revolution led by history professors from multiple universities including Oakland University and the University of Michigan. The speakers were engaging, examining a range of social issues of the past brought on by the rise of technology. This made me think more about how students, and teachers, for that matter, overlook the importance of science in history. As teachers, we often have students examine how one invention led to the rise of another and how this all brought on the move to the cities and the near abandonment of a farming culture, but there is often little mention as to what new ideas sprang up from these changes. With the rise of modernity also came a challenge to older institutions and the growth of modern social movements.  The lectures were more like conversations that tapped into a range of questions crossing over a multitude of academic fields. We left each day with a wealth of knowledge.

Hernry Ford 1Photos on view during behind-the-scenes archives tour for workshop, support learning about the changing roles of women in the home and workplace during the Industrial Revolution.

In addition to lectures and hands-on activities, The Henry Ford’s program allowed our group to work in cohorts and develop lesson plan material of our own. One memory that stands out to me was delving into archived materials with my team partner John of California. We were researching the automotive industry during the 1930s and had uncovered individualized letters and published essays by Henry Ford. As I sat there with John, fumbling through cartloads of historical materials I thought to myself, ”Where else could I have the chance to do something like this?” We spent hours going through the personalized history of one of the great names of the 20 century.

The program required that we create a unique lesson plan pertaining to our field. At the conclusion of our training we presented our projects, breaking down the sequencing and pedagogical strategies to our colleagues who later offered their advice and suggestions. As a result, I left the training with a treasure trove of resources and discovered new perspectives that has since benefited my students’ learning and impacted and altered my own philosophy of teaching.

Hernry Ford 2Firestone Farm presenter DJ drilling (planting) buckwheat grain at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.

The experience of the workshop did not end with my training at The Henry Ford but continues on to today as I continuously fall back on my notes and memories of my past summer experience. I now ask my students to consistently investigate how science connects with all aspects of society and how these innovations represent more than just a demand for consumer products, but of the goals and values of that particular generation for that invention. My students use the digital collections, videos and articles from The Henry Ford and lessons from teachers from my cohort to help relive these great moments in history. The result has been wonderful. I have seen students begin a unit on the Industrial Revolution considering the topic boresome but leave class with a new interest. I am grateful for having been selected for this summer workshop and hope that many teachers from across the nation apply for this program.

Matthew Bunin is an NEH Summer Scholar. 

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