Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has dubbed Americans’ lack of history and civics knowledge a “quiet crisis.” Numerous surveys prove her point. In September, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that nearly four in ten Americans can’t name one right guaranteed under the First Amendment; only a quarter can name all three branches of government. Another survey found that over half of the nation’s 17-year-olds couldn’t place the Civil War within the correct 50-year period. Similarly, less than a quarter of the eighth- and 12th-graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress history and civics exams scored at or above “proficient.” Though critics have bemoaned Americans’ lack of historical and civic knowledge since at least the 1950s, our national ignorance seems to have reached a tipping point. Across the political spectrum, commentators wonder whether the American body politic will remain capable of self-government.
Fortunately, several organizations are working to rebuild American history and civics education. Justice O’Connor founded iCivics, a nonprofit that uses video games to teach students how America’s democracy functions. The Joe Foss Institute works to ensure that every high school student can pass the citizenship exam given to immigrants. The Annenberg Center has created the Civics Renewal Network, a consortium committed to improving civics education. Its motto, a takeoff on Benjamin Franklin’s famous retort, is: “A Republic, if We Can Teach It.”
But no organization is making more of an impact in this area than the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. In recent years, the institute has garnered well-deserved media attention, thanks to the education program that it runs in conjunction with the smash-hit Broadway musical Hamilton, but it has been working to improve history education for more than two decades.
Richard Gilder and Lew Lehrman, successful investors with a passion for American history, founded the institute in 1994. Both studied history at Yale; Lehrman, New York’s Republican nominee for governor in 1982, was a history professor for a time and has written books on Lincoln. Disturbed that many important historical documents were in private hands, the pair began to “vacuum the English-speaking world of American historical documents and manuscripts,” as Lehrman puts it. Not wanting their growing collection of documents to sit in a vault, they hired a staff and created programs so that the documents “could be shared and become the foundation for a greater appreciation and understanding of American history,” notes Lesley Herrmann, who helped launch the institute and was its executive director for more than 20 years.
Today, the collection is one of the great archives of American history. Its 70,000 documents range from a letter from Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to a 1945 letter from Manhattan Project scientists warning of the dangers of the atomic bomb. Gilder and Lehrman gifted the entire collection to the institute in 2012. Housed at the New-York Historical Society, it’s being digitized and made available to libraries and schools across the country. Over the years, Gilder and Lehrman have spent over $150 million on the collection and the institute. They received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2005 for their contributions to the study of American history, which also include the creation of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale and the Douglass, Lincoln, and Washington historical book prizes.
Why devote so much effort and money toward improving the teaching of American history? Gilder explains: “We’re the only country that was formed and based on ideas. How those ideas continue and how they’re interpreted is what really makes the story of our country so interesting and so terrific—even aspects of it that are painful and embarrassing, such as slavery.” Early on, the institute focused on running summer seminars for high school history teachers to interact with historians and deepen their knowledge. The institute then added more seminars as word of mouth spread among the teachers. Last summer, 1,000 teachers participated in 30 seminars, ranging from “Native American History,” taught by Dartmouth College’s Colin Calloway, to “Foreign and Domestic Politics Since the 1970s,” taught by Emory University’s Joseph Crespino.
Gilder Lehrman began holding lectures, exhibits, and extra-credit Saturday courses in American history for high school students; hundreds showed up. The courses’ unexpected popularity encouraged the institute to sponsor a special-theme high school in American history: in 1996, the Academy of American Studies opened in Long Island City, Queens, and today enrolls 1,000 students. Half take classes in a cramped former sewing-machine factory, the other half in Newcomer’s High School, across the street. The academy plans to move to a new building in 2020.
The semi-selective school is as diverse as the borough where it resides. “About three-quarters of our students come from immigrant families,” notes principal William Bassell. “Many parents choose the school because of our strong reputation, small size, nurturing environment . . . but learning about the history, values, and institutions of their new home is also very appealing.” The institute worked with the school on a curriculum that includes U.S. history in all four years, as opposed to the one year required by state standards. Over 90 percent of students graduate in four years; most go on to college. Building on the academy’s success, Gilder Lehrman helped establish a new selective school, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx. Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the 380-student school was ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the top high school in New York State in 2017, and one of the 20 best in the nation.
In addition to these flagship schools, Gilder Lehrman has expanded its reach to 16,000 affiliate schools across all 50 states. The institute provides classroom materials, including lesson plans, posters, and document booklets; access to historical content on the institute’s website, including videos and essays by distinguished scholars on each era of American history; and national student-essay contests on subjects such as the Civil War for middle and high school students and a “Dear George Washington” letter for elementary school students. In 2004, the institute inaugurated its National History Teacher of the Year Award, for which it solicits nominations, selecting 50 state winners and one national winner. State honorees receive recognition and a $1,000 prize; the national recipient gets $10,000. A distinguished guest—such as First Lady Laura Bush, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or a noted historian—presents the award at an elegant ceremony in New York. “It’s nice to have an organization that supports teachers, that celebrates good teaching . . . that appreciates the passion you feel for your kids,” said the 2016 National History Teacher of the Year, Kevin Cline, from Frankton, Indiana. This year’s winner, Sara Ziemnik, from Rocky River, Ohio, notes that “history and civics have been pushed to the side, devalued a bit in the name of other subjects. . . . We’re in a very STEM-focused world. But what good is STEM if we don’t know how to talk to each other, if we don’t understand each other?”
In recent years, Gilder Lehrman has begun to provide more curricular content to schools. It has developed an online study guide for the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam, becoming that test’s most popular resource. The institute’s website now gets more than 7 million unique visits annually. Gilder Lehrman has also introduced a unique program, “Teaching Literacy Through History,” which trains English and history teachers to improve students’ critical thinking, close reading, and argumentative writing skills by using historical texts and primary documents. A new online program featuring prominent historians allows teachers to pursue master’s degrees in history.
Teaching American history is often fraught with controversy, but Gilder Lehrman has stayed above the political fray, thanks to its primary-source document approach. “Our constant North Star is the collection,” notes Tim Bailey, director of education and the 2009 National History Teacher of the Year. “We don’t have an ideological agenda. We believe in teaching history from the words of the people who created our history. . . . Educators shouldn’t be interpreters of history but guides of history.”
For 20 years, Gilder Lehrman worked diligently to improve history education and make it exciting and relevant to students. Then, in 2015, the musical Hamilton arrived. “Simply put, it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to American history education,” notes James Basker, the institute’s longtime president.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, sought to “eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story”—not only by employing hip-hop and a remarkably talented multiracial cast to tell the story of America’s founders but also by showing how we’re grappling with many of the same issues they debated: immigration, foreign entanglements, and the proper size and scope of the federal government. “These are all conversations we’re still having, and it’s a comfort to know that they’re just a part of the more perfect union we’re always working towards,” Miranda stated in The Atlantic. “It was never perfect, and there’s been no fall from grace. I find that heartening, honestly, that we’re still working on it.”
During one of the first performances of Hamilton, at the Public Theater, Gilder Lehrman’s then–executive director Herrmann ran into Ron Chernow, whose 2004 Hamilton biography inspired Miranda to write the play. “We must get this into the hands of kids,” Herrmann told the author. Soon Gilder Lehrman staff were meeting with the musical’s producer, Jeffrey Seller; Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda, Jr., who was tapped to spearhead fund-raising efforts; and officials from the Department of Education to plan how to make that happen.
After Hamilton opened on Broadway, the Rockefeller Foundation provided $1.5 million to create the Hamilton Education Program (“EduHam”) and enable 20,000 New York City students from Title I high schools (where most students are economically disadvantaged) to see the musical for just “a Hamilton” ($10). Part of the funding went to Gilder Lehrman to create a Hamilton curriculum. Bailey, who also has a theater background, devised a program rich in history and artistic expression.
“We didn’t want kids to just see a show,” says Bailey. The resulting curriculum—which teachers typically implement over two or three weeks—highlights what’s possible in history education. Students receive a study guide with information on the Founding Era, Alexander Hamilton, and 41 other historical figures. On a website, they can see excerpts of five songs performed during the show and view video interviews with Miranda and Chernow. Other actors discuss their characters as they look at historical documents from the Gilder Lehrman Collection. The site highlights 14 key events from the era and more than 20 documents, from the Federalist Papers to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Reflecting the institute’s belief in document-based history education, a key part of the Hamilton curriculum revolves around two pamphlets referenced in the show: loyalist Samuel Seabury’s “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” and Hamilton’s “A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress.” The study guide instructs students to do a close reading of document excerpts, summarize them, and debate whether Seabury or Hamilton presented the stronger argument. Students then analyze lyrics from the musical’s song “Farmer Refuted” and discuss how Miranda turned history into a work of popular art. Finally, students, individually or in small groups, create original works—a song, rap, poem, scene, or monologue—based on an individual, document, or event they studied. Schools submit the best performance, and selected students perform their work onstage at the theater before they see the musical.
At a student matinee last year, the excitement of the students—many seeing a Broadway play for the first time—was palpable. As they filed into the theater, one young woman literally jumped over the threshold to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and let out a squeal of delight. Bryan Terrell Clark, the actor who later played George Washington, enthusiastically emceed student performances from a dozen schools.
Two students from the Comprehensive Model School Project high school performed a song about Phillis Wheatley, the formerly enslaved African-American poet who corresponded with Washington and possibly influenced his views on slavery. A young man from Millennium Art Academy performed a rap about Ben Franklin. Two young women from Murray Hill Academy sang about women’s exclusion from the political process and quoted Abigail Adams’s letter to her husband, John, beseeching him to “remember the ladies.”
Students often gravitate to individuals, such as Wheatley or Adams, who haven’t received much attention. Many EduHam students are black or Latino, and their performances often address America’s shameful history of slavery and racial discrimination, but not in a cynical manner. Instead, students tend to communicate an empowering message: that they are eager to write the next chapter in American history—one that moves us closer to our founding ideals.
After the student performances, cast members conducted a Q&A. Students adjourned to a nearby nightclub rented out for their lunch, returning for the student-only matinee. Many cast members note that student audiences are their favorites, and it’s easy to see why. While the 1,300 teenagers were well-mannered throughout the nearly three-hour show, they burst with excitement when Hamilton dissed Jefferson in a cabinet battle or when he ill-initiated his fateful affair with Maria Reynolds.
Much has been made about how Hamilton—a musical about an immigrant striver from the West Indies that valorizes hip-hop—has led students to leave the theater with a changed view of America and a greater sense of civic ownership. But Hamilton also leads students to think about the possibilities of their own lives. Brendyn Owoyemi, a recent graduate of Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School, performed onstage at the Richard Rodgers as part of the first EduHam. “It was beyond anything I could imagine,” Owoyemi said. The experience sparked a deeper interest in American history, and his teacher encouraged him to join Gilder Lehrman’s student advisory council. Now a freshman at Fordham University, Owoyemi plans to become a history or English teacher. Hamilton, he says, “made me think about what I want my legacy to be.”
Gilder Lehrman has replicated its education program in Chicago, where Hamilton has been playing for more than a year. As another Hamilton company travels across the country with stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tempe, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, Houston, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., and Boston, Gilder Lehrman is setting up EduHam programs in each of those cities. The logistics are daunting. Sasha Rolon Pereira, who runs the institute’s Hamilton program, may be the hardest-working person in history education. In each location, she works with myriad city agencies, the department of education, the police, and hundreds of teachers to make the program happen. “My goal,” she notes, “is to give students the best day of their lives.”
The Rockefeller Foundation has pledged another $6 million to support the national expansion, and Gilder Lehrman and the Hamilton team solicit additional funding from philanthropies in cities where the show travels. By the end of 2020, Gilder Lehrman expects that 250,000 students will have seen Hamilton through EduHam.
Hamilton has “brought out the best in us programmatically,” says Basker, and “has broadened the institute’s national exposure.” A foundation that supported the San Francisco EduHam program is now talking with Gilder Lehrman about organizing teacher seminars in California around the issue of immigration. The federal Department of Education has awarded the institute a large grant to run a teacher-development program for history teachers in California. The National Endowment for the Humanities has provided support for the institute to hold discussions on the Founding Era in libraries in all 50 states.
“We’ve reached a new stage in our development,” notes Basker. He estimates that the institute will reach more than 2 million students this year through its various programs—quite an achievement for an organization with a relatively modest $8 million budget. “We punch above our weight,” he says. (Many expenses associated with the Hamilton program belong to a separate budget.)
A few prominent national foundations have approached Gilder Lehrman about creating a national history and civics curriculum, but Basker believes that such an effort is a “self-defeating enterprise,” as “50 states all have different requirements, different sequences, different assessments. . . . People don’t buy into things that are dictated to them. We listen to teachers and students and offer what we think is of value.” Instead of a national curriculum, Gilder Lehrman is developing “national history and civics educational initiatives that would tie specific figures, events, and lessons from history to civics issues and priorities today. . . . There’s much more to be done,” Basker says. “Teachers are hungry for good content.”
In this polarized age of social-media echo chambers, it’s hard to feel optimistic about the future of American democracy or national unity. Basker surmises that our “civic and historical illiteracy” is one reason that our politics have become so toxic, but he remains hopeful. “We’re helping to change the chemistry of the rising generation of students. We’re a democracy. We cannot survive without a population that has a competent knowledge of American history and that cares about it enough to participate.”
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.
Top Photo: When the hit musical Hamilton arrived in 2015, Gilder Lehrman saw a great opportunity to teach history. (COURTESY OF THE GILDER LEHRMAN INSTITUTE OF AMERICAN HISTORY)