Teaching American History

We support teachers of American history, government and civics, believing they do the most important work in America. We help them bring the documents and debates of America’s past into the present through: document-based seminars, document collections both online and in print, and other multimedia resources. We are dedicated to making every American history, government, and civics class in America its best.

WHY PRIMARY DOCUMENTS?

Primary documents present America’s story in the words of those who wrote it—America’s presidents, labor leaders, farmers, immigrants, philosophers, industrialists, politicians, workers, explorers, religious leaders, judges, soldiers; its slaveholders and abolitionists; its expansionists and isolationists; its reformers and stand-patters; its strict and broad constructionists; its hard-eyed realists and visionary utopians. When students read these documents they have direct access to the minds of those, both great and humble, who shaped our nation’s history. They can see the challenges earlier generations faced, examine their intentions, and join the great debates that guided their choices. As teacher in our programs put it, “reading primary documents allows students to ask questions of themselves, ask questions of each other, and ultimately ask questions of history.”

WHY CONVERSATION?

Asking  questions leads to conversation. Our seminars aim to be serious conversations about the enduring issues of American history and government because conversation is the best way to engage each student and deepen learning. Equally important, what a serious conversation requires of its participants – concern for the truth, listening to others, waiting one’s turn to speak, modest but assertive statements of one’s views, respect for the views of others, etc. – are, writ large, the virtues required of citizens in our republic. Each of our seminars, then, is in a sense a small republic, an example of self-government, and a vindication of the principles of liberty and equality upon which our way of life rests.

WHY DO WE SUPPORT TEACHERS AND STUDENTS?

At its best, an American history, government or civics  class—wherever it occurs—reenacts the Founding of the Republic and thereby preserves it. It strengthens the American republic by inculcating the manners, understanding, and inclinations self-governing citizens require.  

Statement of Principles

The most important work in America is teaching American history, government, and civics.  This work is essential to preserving what has always been distinctively good about America. History functions for a nation as memory does for an individual.  Without memory, an individual or a nation has no identity, and ultimately, no existence.  With false memories, each has only a distorted sense of self, misconceptions of virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses—and hence little chance of a better life. Government in the fullest sense is the way a people organize their common life to make it a better life.  In the United States, the fullest expression of government is the self-governing of the American people.  Preserving self-government requires clear-sighted attention to our fundamental principles. These principles are found in the primary documents of our history.  We aim to understand those documents as their authors did.  This implies that we can escape our own time and understand something from another time.  Indeed, one cannot deny this without self-contradiction: the denial would have to claim to be always true, thus to escape our time, as it denied such an escape was possible.  If we can understand the documents of the past, then our minds are free from the present. If they are free from the present, then they are also free from the limits of gender, race and socio-economic status that characterize us here and now.  That our minds are free from these things means that we share a common humanity.  It means, in the most important sense, that all men are created equal.  Using primary documents to understand what their authors meant is simultaneously a defense of human freedom and equality. Our manner of using these documents reinforces, as it derives from, the primacy of equality and freedom, which we understand to be not only fundamental political principles but fundamental educational principles.  All participants in a seminar should engage with each other as fellow students, as equals with one another in devotion to the truth and to understanding the documents they study as their authors understood them.  They should  talk with each other in a seminar as free and equal individuals should.  This manner implies, in brief, that a seminar is a small republic.  What is required for a serious conversation about important things (free attention to the truth, listening to others, waiting one’s turn to speak, modest but assertive statements of one’s views, etc.) are, writ large, the kind of virtues needed for republican life, for ruling and being ruled in turn.  This manner encourages those involved to raise their expectations of themselves, making themselves better students, teachers and citizens than they would otherwise be.  At its best, an American history and government class—wherever it occurs—reenacts the Founding of the Republic and thereby preserves it.  It strengthens the American republic by inculcating the manners, understanding, and inclinations self-governing citizens require.

We are dedicated to making every American history and government class in America its best.