History Education and the American Battlefield Trust

I have the good fortune of being able to do a lot of work with the American Battlefield Trust, as do many of my Emerging Civil War colleagues. In particular, we do a lot with ABT’s education department. (As an example, check out our coverage of the Trust’s 2019 Teacher Institute or the bajillion Facebook programs we’ve helped with). I have to give a big shout out to ABT’s Chief Historian Garry Adelman, as well as ECW alum Dan Davis and, of course, ECW co-founder Kris White, who all let us come and play in ABT sandbox.

Because of ECW’s own commitment to education, the latest letter from the Trust’s Jim Lighthizer caught my immediate attention. Jim retired as president on September 30, but he sent one final mailing before stepping down. It’s an appeal near and dear to my heart and, I know, many of yours because it addresses the importance of history education.

Whenever I talk to roundtables, wherever I go, people lament the state of history education in general and Civil War education in particular, so I know it’s an issue on a lot of people’s minds.

So, understanding how important this is for so many ECW readers, I asked the Trust if I could pass along Jim’s letter. I hope you’ll take a moment to read it:

Over the course of 20 years at the American Battlefield Trust, I have counted upon you time and time again to help defend our nation’s most important battlefields from destruction.

Today I call on you once more, in what may be my last letter to you as President of the Trust, to join me in the fight against another threat that I believe is just as dangerous to our county and its future if we don’t act now . . .

I’m talking about the crisis we are facing in history education all across America.

Most of us are focused on the frightening reality of a global pandemic that has forced schools and colleges to shut down around the country, pressing many students and teachers to rely on virtual instruction and online learning.

But let me take you back a year — before any of these new and strange circumstances — to remind you where the state of history education in America was heading.

Take a look at the scores below from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “nation’s report card,” that measures knowledge of American history.

The recent studies show that over a twenty-year period, no more than 15 percent of U.S. 8th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level in history. To say that another way, 85 percent of the nation’s 8th graders did not even score “proficient” in American history.

Another study found that less than one third of the top 75 colleges and universities ranked by US News and World Report magazine even require a course in U.S. history as a graduation requirement for history majors!

Think about that . . . of the 75 top colleges and universities listed as the “best” in America, only 23 of them require history majors to take at least one U.S. history course to graduate! And another survey found that out of more than 1,000 liberal arts colleges and universities, only 18 percent require students to take even one basic course in American history or government before they graduate.

But that’s not all:

“Boring!” was the single most-used word in a national survey conducted by the Indiana University Center for Survey Research when participants were asked to “describe your experience with history classes in elementary or high school.”

A recent survey of 41,000 adults by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that only 4 out of 10 Americans could pass the U.S. Citizenship Test given to new immigrants seeking citizenship!

It gets worse. Another study found that fewer than 20 percent of college students surveyed could accurately identify what the Emancipation Proclamation actually did. And what’s more, another survey published in 2015 reported that more than one-third of new college graduates could not even place the Civil War within the correct 20-year time frame!

Unfortunately, I could go on and on with more alarming facts and figures, but I think you can see the crisis we’re in: we face the immediate risk of raising a whole generation of individuals who have lost any appreciation for, or knowledge of, our country’s history and its heroes, much less its battlefields, or the importance of preserving our history for future generations.

And as I mentioned, the numbers I’ve shown you today were all tallied before we entered a global pandemic that has affected nearly every single student, teacher, and classroom in the nation . . .

Now, online learning has become a reality for students and educators in America, with virtual lessons replacing in-classroom instruction in many schools and colleges around the country.

Students of all ages are unable to return to their classrooms this fall, let alone visit the outdoor classrooms you and I have worked so hard to preserve.

Educators are feeling the effects of the crisis we face, too. Many teachers — who already deal with the challenges posed by budget cuts and increased focus on the STEM subjects (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) — now have to navigate online lessons, managing their “classrooms” virtually, and engaging their students without many of the tools and resources they need.

I know that you value our country’s history. And I suspect that, like me, you cringed when you heard that so many students described history as “boring,” and you’re probably feeling even more distressed thinking about what could happen if we let history education in this country continue to slide into decay…

We could face a future where students have no understanding of our past or why we are the way we are…and no interest in or appreciation for what generations before us have sacrificed for us to get to where we are today.

How can we ever expect the leaders of tomorrow to have any frame of reference for making decisions about the future of our country if they don’t have any understanding of what’s happened before them?

If that kind of future frightens you as much as it does me, then I think you’ll agree . . .

We simply cannot let history and civics education fall to the wayside. Not when so much is at stake! And yet, even during these strange and uncertain times, there is a silver lining —
Thanks to support from dedicated individuals like you, the Trust has become the leader in generating online history resources and battlefield-based education.

Even during the pandemic, new technologies and digital capabilities have made it possible for the Trust to reach hundreds of thousands of individuals online.

From creating videos, crash-courses and an online curricula that educators can use in their virtual classrooms, to providing virtual field trips and Zoom-based presentations for learners of all ages, to placing interpretive signage and trails on preserved battlefield land, to transitioning our annual Teacher Institute into an online setting, the Trust has taken the lead in making sure that students and teachers all over the world have access to the authoritative, unbiased content they need to understand and appreciate our nation’s rich history.

And through our new augmented reality technologies, the Trust can effectively do something that hasn’t ever been done before — bringing the battlefield experience to students wherever they are.

Particularly in such strange times, programs like these can truly change lives.

Over the years, you have gone the distance to see that our nation’s hallowed ground is preserved and that America’s past is protected for all times.

Now, my friend, I’m asking you to help me save America’s future.

I’ve often asked for your help bringing kids to battlefields through our popular Field Trip Fund. But now that this effort is “on hold” until schools can re-open, I ask for your help bringing the battlefield to students all across America and doing all that you can to pass along that love of learning and that excitement about history that you and I share.

Right now, you can make a difference in the life of a student or teacher by making a special gift in support of:

Virtual Field Trips: Especially in the time of Covid, not every student has the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, Fort McHenry, or our nation’s capital to learn from our past. The next-best experience is a virtual field trip, led by engaging experts in history and social studies that bring students virtually from around the world to the places where history happened.

Virtual Teacher Institute: This summer, almost 800 educators from 49 states and four countries participated in our first-ever Virtual Teacher Institute. In turn, these educators will engage with more than 115,000 students around the world this school year alone. That is impact!

Smartphone Battle Apps, Augmented Reality Apps, and Animated Maps: We have produced 20 informative and FREE apps – allowing you to tour a battlefield wherever you are! And with “augmented reality” you can even be with President Lincoln or General Lee on the field. Plus, your support can help add to our animated map offerings, our most popular learning tools.

Battlefield Education and Interpretation: To match a gift from a generous benefactor, as well as help increase general knowledge of the Revolutionary War, your gift of any size will help create new virtual and on-site battlefield interpretation at Revolutionary War battlefields all across America!

Your gift today to any of these programs will have a profound and lasting impact on a student or a teacher — but the news gets even better:

That’s because another generous donor who, like yourself, is dedicated to seeing that future generations value our history as much as you and I do, has agreed to match — dollar for dollar — every gift made to this appeal by devoted members like you up to $100,000!

This means that your generosity will have double the impact . . .

On average it costs $20,000 to produce a virtual field trip — to put it another way, if just 200 supporters contributed $50 each, then, with the help of this important match, classrooms all across the country could have access to an in-depth history experience. Just think: with your help, each time a student wanted to learn about the Siege of Vicksburg, they can take a virtual “tour” of the battlefield!

With your gift of $250, you can sponsor a teacher’s attendance at our National Teacher Institute next summer, where they will learn new strategies and techniques to engage their students with their studies of history, or sponsor a teacher’s ongoing education credits at a Virtual Teacher Institute. On average, teachers reach thousands of students in their lifetimes!

I’m sure you watch the news . . . you know how important it is for citizens to understand our country’s history, perhaps more important than ever. We simply must do everything in our power to prevent the further neglect of history education in America.

We must act now, or else so much of the great preservation work (more than 53,000 acres saved!) that you and I are doing today may soon be forgotten.

That’s why, in what might be my final request to you as President . . .

. . . I ask you to join me in one of the most important and urgent tasks that we face today, educating our nation’s students about the importance of our history, and ensuring that they, too, will strive to protect our nation’s most priceless places, so they can never be forgotten.

If you agree that educating and inspiring the next generation is an essential part of our work — will you please consider making your most generous gift right away to support the Trust’s education efforts?

If you can help in any way today, I will forever be in your debt, and so will the future generations of this country.

— Jim Lighthizer

P.S. As millions of students are now relying upon virtual instruction and online learning — I ask you to imagine our nation without the efforts of the American Battlefield Trust: Tens of thousands of acres of hallowed ground, paved over and forgotten, and countless students graduating into the world with almost no knowledge of our nation’s important history. If this scenario terrifies you as much as it does me, then please let me hear back from you today, with your generous support! Remember, every dollar you give for the Trust’s education efforts today is matched by our generous friend, up to $100,000! Thank you!

P.P.S. And don’t forget to visit our website at www.battlefields.org/education2020 to learn more about our trove of virtual history resources, and to see how your support is already changing the lives of students everywhere! Thanks again.



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