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What Every Citizen Needs to Know

Teaching what every citizen needs to know.

FOR HIS SENIOR THESIS Robert Wohner, 17, a student at the 11-year-old Academy of American Studies, a small Queens, NY public high school with an American history focus, wrote about the impact of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803 to 1806 on Native Americans. In addition to secondary sources, including a PBS documentary and Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage, he had access to such primary materials as a letter that William Clark, the co-leader of that expedition, wrote in 1827. Clark was the superintendent of Indian Affairs at the time. His letter said that Indians could not be given alcohol because of the negative effect it had on them. Wohner saw a connection between Clark's perception and today's rate of alcoholism among Native Americans. He transcribed the original Clark document, handwritten in distinctive script, and inserted the text into his senior thesis.

A high school senior, doing original research from primary documents and drawing connections between the past and the present? This is precisely what the original funders of history high schools-businessmen Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, who once ran for governor of New York, had in mind when they began to plan educational programs supported by their nonprofit Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Institute, founded in 1994, is built upon a growing collection of more than 60,000 documents, including letters and diaries, photographs, and source documents of American democracy, such as early drafts of the U.S. Constitution and of Abraham Lincoln's 1858 "House Divided" speech.

At the time the pilot history high school was launched in 1996 by the New York City Board of Education in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute, an alarming rate of “historical illiteracy” had just been uncovered in the 1994 U.S. History National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Targeting 'Historical Illiteracy.' In the decade since the Academy was founded, the problem of historical illiteracy has not been solved. "Even students at Stanford and Yale, when given the basic American history test, know virtually nothing," says Michael Serber, a veteran Queens educator who was the Academy's founding principal and now helps coordinate the history high schools program for the Institute. "They don't get it by osmosis at the dinner table anymore. They turn instead to Game Boy, NFL Live."

And then there is the increasingly pressing issue of historical accuracy, which has been magnified by the proliferation of American history themed Internet websites and television and film "docudramas" with sketchy if not downright biased underpinnings. These new sources threaten to hijack history by offering up fake or politicized accounts of real events. (Two cases in point: the controversial ABC-TV miniseries The Path to 9/11, aired five years after the terrorists attacks. The docudrama, which laid primary blame for the attacks at the feet of the Clinton administration while praising the Bush team, was heavily criticized for its factual inaccuracy from all sides of the political spectrum. More recently under scrutiny: The RFK film Bobby that mixes actual footage with reenactment; it's newly out on DVD.

Teaching the difference between fact and opinion is an important part of education today, says Serber, especially as students are increasingly using online sources. "The teachers work with the kids on being able to differentiate between a legitimate website and a site that is just there to foist a point of view on people." Using original documents, available online or through booklets prepared by research librarians, students can start at the source and decide for themselves rather than rely upon distorted interpretations.

Why Focus on American History? "It's a question of citizenship," says Serber. "How can you deal with issues today and tomorrow if you don't have an understanding of yesterday? It's important to study the past to participate widely in the governing process. Today we have more immigrants coming into the country than since the turn of the last century." Many have no awareness of or bring only distorted impressions of American history, Serber says: “It's vital that they be given sufficient background so they develop an understanding of the American past—slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement, the growth of democracy, the increase of voting rights, civil rights, and women's rights. It is important to see the whole picture. You can't get it in one year.”

High school teachers are under pressure to cover the material, he adds, particularly to prepare students for statewide exams. "What we wanted was an expanded curriculum that would cover three or four years, giving teachers time to go into depth and use primary sources. We wanted the kids to discover history rather than cover history. We wanted them to debate the the issues reflected in those documents. Was Jefferson a hero or a hypocrite? Should Lincoln be considered one of America's greatest presidents? You have to reflect on his goals, his strategies, and how he moved from a policy of suggesting to African American leaders that they think about relocating to a colony overseas, to emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment."

"One teacher put the New Deal on trial. It was wonderful," Serber recalls. "She had a student representing Roosevelt in a wheelchair. He rolled down to be a witness to speak on behalf of the New Deal. A student playing Hoover said, ‘I started a lot of this, why don't I get any credit?’ You can teach that way when you have time."

Today there are 45 history high schools in urban areas like Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Savannah, and in small towns like Arcata and Eureka, CA. The Gilder Lehrman Institute supports these schools and "Saturday Academy" history programs throughout the country. It offers traveling exhibitions, "junior historian" gatherings with prominent historians, "Teacher of the Year" awards, and summer institutes for teachers. The Institute's online resources for American history teachers and students include primary source documents and a History Now site with historic papers, lesson plans, and an "Ask the Archivist" section.

Do History High Schools Work? To date, they have a track record of raising test scores and sending 90 percent of entering students on to college. "Every student who has applied to colleges in the last few years has been accepted at one, and 95 percent have gone on to enter college," says Ellen Sherman, the current principal of the Academy of American Studies. "A few go into the military. Most go to four-year schools. Last year my valedictorian, Jessica Tamdji, was accepted to Brown and Georgetown, with a big scholarship, plus a greatest generation scholarship." Most of the Academy's students are the first in their families to attend college.

And yes, history high schools can attract students. The Academy, the flagship history high school, had 3,000 applicants for 160 openings last year, compared to 250 applicants for 125 spots in its first freshman class. In Fall 2006, the Academy added another pilot project, opening an American history research center funded by Gilder Lehrman and run by six student research assistants trained at the Institute over the summer. One of those assistants is Robert Wohner, who now helps other students search for that gem of a document that will help their papers stand out.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of Stealing the Fire: Short Stories (Canio's Editions), and an award-winning journalist. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Spring 2007. 

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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