Pursuing Civic Literacy
NARA Education Programs Promote New Ways to Teach History
Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3
By Allen Weinstein
Shortly after I became Archivist of the United States last year, someone asked me if "civic education" should really become one of the core activities of the National Archives and Records Administration.
NARA, I was reminded, is the nation's record keeper. Wasn't "education" a potential distraction, a redirection of resources away from NARA's basic mission to preserve and provide access to the records we keep for the American people?
My response was emphatic: Without a basic level of civic literacy among the American people, all of the outstanding records we preserve and make easily available to everyone would matter little to a citizenry that has lost touch with its own history.
With that in mind, the mission of "civic education" is now embedded in NARA's new Strategic Plan. One of our five goals now reads: "We will increase civic literacy in America through our museum, public outreach, and education programs."
Actually, education has been a major activity at the National Archives for some time, long before I arrived. Today, it is an important commitment at our facilities nationwide, often in partnership with affiliated nonprofit foundations and institutes, which provide crucial support for programs that would otherwise not be possible.
One example: For nearly 30 years, NARA has conducted the "Primarily Teaching" summer institutes at our main building in Washington, D.C. Their goal has been to teach teachers how to conduct research in our holdings in order to creatively integrate historical documents into classroom instruction. We have also taken that program on the road with sessions this past summer at the Pacific Region archives in Laguna Niguel, California, and the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.
Around the country, NARA facilities—regional archives and presidential libraries—are involved in collaborations and partnerships to further education goals. In some cases, NARA is a partner to recipients of Teaching American History Grants. At many locations, staff members participate in National History Day competitions at the local, state, and national levels.
In Washington, D.C., NARA has made a special commitment to the District of Columbia's National History Day program. No other city in the country can match Washington for the availability of resources for the study of the nation's history. It is important that school children and educators in the nation's capital can tap into these invaluable resources as part of their participation in National History Day.
Meanwhile, some very exciting educational activities have been developed far from NARA's headquarters on the National Mall—among other places, at the Eisenhower and Truman Presidential Libraries in the Midwest.
One of those is the "Five Star Leaders" program at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, a program that opened in the fall of 2005. It is structured along the lines of the "White House Decision Center" at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, which began in 2001. Both programs, developed with the support of the Eisenhower Foundation and the Truman Institute, respectively, allow middle and high school students the opportunity to come to the libraries and use facsimiles of historic documents to learn how Dwight D. Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman made some of the 20th century's most historic decisions.
At the Truman Library, students take on the roles of President Truman and his top advisers in one of three scenarios: the 1948 Soviet blockade of Berlin, the 1950 invasion of South Korea by North Korea, and the President's 1948 order desegregating U.S. armed forces.
At the Eisenhower Library, students portray General Eisenhower and his commanders in the events leading up to the decision to go ahead with the D-day invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. Five Star Leaders is also developing a scenario for President Eisenhower's decision to send troops to Little Rock in the 1957 desegregation crisis. You can learn more about the Five Star Leaders initiative in this issue of Prologue.
These programs are designed to engage students in learning history by providing them the opportunity to emulate active participants in history. Kim Barbieri, education specialist at the Eisenhower Library, notes that in her 22 years of teaching, she found that project-based curriculum units proved successful in history and government classes because they engaged the students. But the programs at the Truman and Eisenhower libraries go a step further.
"Students literally walk in the shoes of history's leaders and decision makers," she says. "The lessons they learn through this profoundly personal experience with history make a deep and lasting impact that no textbook can replicate."
Now, all these programs will have a flagship in the new Learning Center, a part of the National Archives Experience in NARA's Washington, D.C., building.
The Learning Center, made possible in large part by the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, will strengthen efforts to reach into the nation's classrooms and help students and teachers study history in a more exciting way through the use of primary documents.
The Learning Center has two components, a ReSource Room and a Learning Lab. In the ReSource Room, opened in April 2006, teachers and parents can obtain facsimiles of historic documents, preview materials for sale in the Archives Shop, and exchange ideas about teaching history. In the Learning Lab, opening in early 2007, middle and junior high school students can participate in new interactive workshops, and teachers can be trained in how to use documents in the classroom. We are also developing a special web site linked to the Learning Center.
The "civic literacy" role recently taken on by NARA, in Washington, D.C., and nationally, reinforces this agency's long and distinguished record of museum, public outreach, and education programs. At any given time, hundreds of NARA staff members are serving as teachers and consultants, writers and editors, archival scholars, and museum curators in public programs aimed at engaging Americans in the study of their own history through written records that document that history.
In this commentary, I have described only a handful of the many educational efforts under way at our Washington, D.C., locations, presidential libraries, regional archives, and regional record centers. I will return to the subject and will introduce other innovative initiatives in future issues of Prologue.
Allen Weinstein is Archivist of the United States.