by Dr. Peter S. Carmichael, Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies & Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College
We need more initiatives that will encourage young people to learn and understand the past for the future of democracy in this nation. Alarming statistics show we are a nation of “amnesiacs” when it comes to American history. Without knowledge of the past, among kids as well as well as adults, the ideal of good citizenship will be unattainable
It is encouraging that, as Education Week reported recently, “Civics has experienced something of a renaissance, with more than a dozen states now requiring students to take the U.S. citizenship test in high school.” But as promising as that development suggests, it doesn’t go far enough. Memorizing dates and names doesn’t necessary encourage young learners to explore the country’s founding and the ideas and aspirations of those men who launched our nation. Their belief that legitimate governments must have the consent of the governed and that the people in return should behave as responsible citizenry is a contract that will crumble if we fail to inspire young people about the American past. I don’t believe that young minds are closed off to the study of the past.”
Every summer at the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, approximately 300 Civil War enthusiasts attend a week-long conference that I oversee. And every year we award scholarships to high school students for an immersive experience in the study of the Civil War. They attend lectures, visit historical sites, and participate in an interactive experience in which the kids act out roles related to the New York City draft Riots of 1863. Throughout the week they are also active learners. In fact, we let them become their own historians, giving opportunities to read and debate original sources with top scholars in the field. The CWI approach is hardly unique as teachers and museum interpreters use similar pedagogical styles.
This positive trend is at risk of flat lining as long as public education is beholden to standardized testing. In classrooms across the country history is marginalized because it doesn’t apply to the test. At a time when teachers at all levels are showing great creativity in opening up the past in the classroom, their efforts are blunted by an assessment machine. From the many teacher conferences I have led over the last 15 years, I have heard repeatedly that the tests churn out students who often lack fundamental knowledge about the past, and the analytical skills, which are so critical to foster responsible citizens as adults.
The late Dr. Bruce Cole, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, saw the same deficiency in America’s elementary and middle schools. It was Dr. Cole who once described the U.S. as “a country of historical amnesiacs” but his blunt, accurate assessment should not prevent us from finding hope in the future.
The promotion of the past must begin early and it must inspire young learners, imaginatively, or they will not become engaged. David Bruce Smith, noted for advancing the “cause” of history inside and outside the classroom, co-founded, with the late Dr. Cole, the Grateful American Book Prize, which the Smithsonian Web site described as an “interactive educational series [that] aims to restore a passion for history in kids and adults.”
At David’s invitation, I helped him implement the Prize in 2015; it has since become one of the most influential forces in out-of-the-classroom history education. The Prize encourages authors and their publishers to produce engaging, historically accurate works of fiction and nonfiction for young learners. Such books capture the imaginations of youngsters in a way that textbooks can’t. They tell absorbing, engrossing, adventurous tales that kids won’t soon forget. Most important, they are true stories that provide insight into the events and personalities that have shaped our nation.
Dr. Carmichael is a member of the Panel of Judges for the Grateful American Book Prize and a member of the history department at Gettysburg College