During a recent panel discussion at the Gettysburg Heritage Center, several of us from ECW pondered a question we all hear these daysL “How do we get more young people interested in the Civil War?” My colleagues offered a lot of good advice—everything from “get students onto the battlefields” to “focus on great storytelling.” I heartily endorse such sentiments! (The full discussion will appear on C-SPAN in a few weeks; we’ll let you know when so that you can tune in.)
I hear this same lament a lot when I’m on the road speaking to roundtables. Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch: “We need more young people.” And it’s true—we do! With everything competing for their attention these days, and with so many teachers forced by state testing to boil things down to names/dates/places, Civil War history can seem downright boring compared to the entertaining multimedia immersion students can otherwise experience.
Since the panel discussion, I’ve tried to think of several specific suggestions I can offer as ways to get more young people interested in the Civil War. I offer these suggestions specifically with roundtables and historical societies in mind. I warn you in advance, the list is not exhaustive; in fact, I would encourage all of you to chime in with specific things your group successfully does. But here, at least, is a stab:
Reach out to young people through the media channels they’re most apt to engage. A notice in the local paper is great for people in the traditional roundtable demographics, but how many teenagers—or even twenty-somethings—are reading the local newspaper? Instead, what are you doing with social media—and not just Facebook (which has become kinda uncool for teens) but Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube, and others? You have to keep current, too. After all, remember a crazy little thing called “MySpace”? Most teens today don’t remember it, either. “Vine” was a big thing for a while, too, but that seems to have withered. You have to know what social media young people are using today, and then consider how you’re actively using it to reach them. For example, are you sending out tweets about your meeting times? Is that all you’re tweeting, or are you retweeting links to interesting news stories and blog posts you like, too? If that social media stuff all sounds like work, it is—but that’s what it will take if you want to reach young folks.
Beyond social media, what other ways do you have to reach them? Through their social studies teachers at school? Through the history clubs at their schools? Through Scouts? Through church youth groups? Reach out to people and groups that have influence with them. Expand your net and think creatively.
Be sure your meetings are inviting to younger people. Sure, you might think the atmosphere of your meetings is welcoming, but the people who’ve been going for years and years are used to the routine. What’s it like to show up as a new person? What’s it like to show up as a new young person? Is the room full of old fogies? Are people friendly to strangers, or do people hang with their own cliques?
And then there’s the larger question of getting younger people in the door in the first place: Is the meeting time convenient for younger people? How about the meeting location? Dress code? What about the cost of dinner, if any? A $35 sit-down meal isn’t too much for most of us, but for a teenager, that’s a day’s wages at their part-time job.
Get involved with National History Day, the Civil War Trust’s National Teacher Institute, and other organizations that promote history education. The more you can do to partner with groups that already focus on history education—particularly Civil War history—the more you can build off of each other’s efforts. For instance, sending a local teacher off to the Trust’s annual Teachers Institute is an excellent investment in someone who’s working on the front lines with young people. Not only are you helping that person better kindle an interest in the Civil War in his/her students, that teacher is also far more apt to funnel interested students in the direction of your roundtable. For National History Day, offering a special prize for the best Civil War-themed project in the regional competition might encourage more Civil War projects. Aside from offering the prize, you can also show off the projects at one of your meetings, which gets students in the door.
Solicit volunteers to go into schools to talk with students. This is more complicated than it sounds, though. First, you need to find the right person/people to contact at the school. Then you need to talk with them about ways you and your group can interact with students most effectively. Because of state testing requirements, the amount of time teachers can devote to the Civil War is limited, so that classtime must be used as effectively as possible. Going and “talking about the Civil War” might not be enough. Find out what your teachers need and then work with them to develop programming that helps them.
Similarly, it’s not enough to send just anyone into a class. Be sure your volunteers aren’t just passionate about the subject but that they’re also good public speakers. It’s a mistake to think passion alone will carry a speaker. Students today have a billion and one things vying for their short attention spans, and they get bored easily, so guest speakers need to be dynamic and engaging, not just passionate about the Civil War.
Urge your state legislators to support more Civil War education in schools. So much of what teachers teach today ties back to standardized state curricula. Write to your state legislators and ask them to support more Civil War education as part of the state’s curriculum. Get each member of your roundtable to write a letter, and have the roundtable itself send a letter, too. Provide form letters or offer letter-writing workshops for anyone who needs help. If you conduct a campaign in conjunction with other Civil War Roundtables in your state, you’ll amplify your voices.
This is, of course, fraught with political landmines. Battles and leaders are usually the most attention-grabbing hooks for getting a young person’s interest, but in the context of the overall curriculum, those things are not as important as talking about the causes of the war, the impacts of the war, and the long-term ramifications of the war. And, of course, the issue of slavery remains thorny, although it’s absolutely central to any discussion.
Some of what I’ve suggested is apt to raise some hackles, I’m sure. It’s tough to take an honest look at what you’re doing, sometimes, and admit, for instance, that perhaps Chris isn’t the best guy to go speak to a room full of eighth graders. Or, by gummy, we’ve had our meetings on Thursdays at the Good Old Boys Club downtown at 5:30 p.m. on the dot for forty years, and their dress code has worked just fine. But if you want to attract more younger people, some folks are going to have to be open to change.
You’re also going to have to work at it a little bit. You have to meet them on their ground and then, from there, you can invite them over to your “hallowed ground.” And remember: younger people love interactivity and engagement–so what can you do to get them involved?
I’m sure other folks have suggestions beyond the five I’ve offered here. I’d love to hear what’s worked for you!