Bill Sellers sees a crisis in historical and civic literacy in the nation.
“History majors are down 34% since 2011, and two-thirds of the adults in the United States can’t name the three branches of government,” he said.
Civics isn’t being taught in many high schools and American history is often taught as a series of disconnected events without tying those events to the present, he said.
“Our history and our Constitution are relevant to all of us, and it’s our responsibility as American citizens to be informed. Democracy is a fragile thing, and we must remain constantly vigilant to protect it and move our country forward,” Sellers said.
National History Academy, which Sellers founded and where he serves as president and CEO, carried the effort to reverse these trends to Carlisle last week with a Tuesday visit to Dickinson College and its House Divided project.
Sellers said the National History Academy program, based in Middleburg, Virginia, focuses on learning about pivotal moments of history at the places where they happened. Lessons about the Declaration of Independence, American Revolution and the creation of the Constitution take groups to the homes of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington as well as the National Archives and Yorktown.
Study on slavery and the Civil War includes trips to Gettysburg, Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Ford’s Theater and the Old Soldiers Home where Lincoln wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation. When the page turns to the Civil Rights movement, the students visit the Frederick Douglass home, Storer College and the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech.
“Our collective history becomes much more real with this type of immersive learning,” Sellers said.
Dickinson College fits into the program because these trips are combined with classroom work and interaction with nationally renowned speakers, Sellers said.
“Dickinson College and Carlisle provides us one of those rare sites that deliver all aspects of what we are trying to achieve,” he said.
The House Divided project started more than a decade ago to create free resources online for K-12 classes that explore the onset of the Civil War, the war itself and reconstruction. The project now has a network of two to three dozen websites that makes hundreds of thousands of documents available to students.
“We’re building resources here for students like you,” said Matthew Pinsker, director of House Divided and Brian C. Pohanka Chair in American Civil War History at Dickinson.
Yet, Pinsker said, the project struggles to get the word out to the very students and teachers who could use it. Bringing it in front of the history academy students helps to see how such a collection may be useful in their own work.
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The students took advantage of the History Divided project’s digital data to examine a memo written by Abraham Lincoln in 1864 in which he expressed his doubts that he would win the election and pledged to cooperate with the incoming administration. Under Pinsker’s guidance, the students explored Lincoln’s possible motives for writing the memo and what was happening — or had happened — that might cause people to doubt the peaceful transfer of power.
This interaction, combined with the rest of the students’ experience, led Sellers to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the students decide to attend Dickinson in the coming years.
“Only a handful had ever been here before, but the combination of the small town atmosphere, the great restaurants and shops downtown, the town’s friendliness, its history and Dickinson’s beautiful campus and very personalized emphasis on undergraduate education made a great impact on our students,” Sellers said.
House Divided interns Amanda Donoghue, Alex Ghaemmaghami, Cooper Wingert and Dana Marecheau led parts of the programs for the students.
Donoghue and Ghaemmaghami took students behind the scenes at the House Divided studio at 61 N. West St., where they would also walk through the latest exhibit, Dickinson & Slavery, that looks at the college’s role on the slavery issue.
“We’re going to be looking a lot [at] methodology behind the research because they are, hopefully, aspiring historians and are going to be trying to get feedback from them about ways that our exhibition works and ways that it doesn’t,” Donoghue said while awaiting the students’ arrival.
The Dickinson & Slavery exhibit is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays through the end of the month.
Wingert and Marecheau took the students to the Old Courthouse to show the students the damage left behind by cavalry advances and the effect the absence of those troops had on the battle at Gettysburg about 30 miles away.
Then, standing in the room where it happened, Wingert told the students the McClintock Riot of 1847 was named for John McClintock, a Dickinson College professor who was accused of instigating the rescue of slaves from the courthouse.
The reality is that three slaves who had escaped from Maryland were brought to the courthouse for a hearing. Members of Carlisle’s African-American community launched a rescue attempt and two of them were rescued. This is what the Underground Railroad really looked like, Wingert said.
“The Underground Railroad isn’t lanterns and quilts and hidden tunnels. That it really plays out, most of the time, in public spaces like courthouses,” he said.
The academy students topped off their visit with dinner and time to chat with Pinsker and the House Divided interns.