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CW Journal : Autumn 2011 : Message from the President

President Colin G. Campbell

President Colin G. Campbell

Message from the President

A Fundamental Aspiration

The state of the teaching of history and civics in our nation’s schools is cause for concern. The latest Nation’s Report Card, published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, finds that less than 25 percent of the students tested are proficient or better in knowledge about America’s past or how our government works. A majority scored below the basic achievement level. Ninety percent did not understand the Constitution's checks and balances. Less than half grasped why there is a Bill of Rights.

Competence has improved slightly since the first such tests in 1994, but there was no significant change in the “proficient or better” category despite more than fifteen years of effort. Only 19 percent of fourth graders could correctly sequence Jamestown’s founding, adoption of the Constitution, Columbus's voyage, and the Emancipation Proclamation. Just 32 percent of eighth graders could identify a single important advantage Americans had over the British in the Revolution. Less than 55 percent of high school seniors knew that Missouri’s 1819 application for statehood threatened the union’s slave and free state balance.

A Virginia Civic Health Index compiled last year by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier, and the National Conference on Citizenship showed, among other concerning data, that 56 percent of the state's eighteen to twenty-four year olds did not believe the Constitution limits the powers of government. Sixty-eight percent denied government is empowered to act for the public good.

With our Montpelier partners we agreed that a sound grounding in civics is crucial to the future of democracy, and that the subject can and should be engaging and inspiring.

Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and Colonial Williamsburg senior trustee, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that there is more to history than dates and names.

“Far more than simply conveying the story of a country or civilization,” he said, “an education in history can create critical thinkers who can digest, analyze, and synthesize information and articulate their findings. These are skills needed across a broad range of subjects and disciplines.

“Now is a time to reestablish history’s importance in American education. We need to take this opportunity to ensure that today’s history teachers are teaching in a more enlightened fashion.”

This is a message with which we wholeheartedly agree.

What is Colonial Williamsburg doing about it? A sampling: The Revolutionary City program offers daily street-theater history and civics lessons in American values. RevQuest: Sign of the Rhinoceros, a mobile technology game introduced this summer, in which entire families participated, is firmly rooted in the history that sets Williamsburg apart. In a short time, it has proven to be a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience.

Scores of classroom instructors each year attend the Williamsburg Teacher Institute and regional workshops. We offer schools inexpensive Electronic Field Trips–seven interactive broadcasts with lesson plans and interactive student resources that make history relevant to young people.

We’ve developed The Idea of America, an interactive, fully digital, Web-based curriculum for high school students. We’ve created the participatory websites iCitizen Forum, which engages a diverse community in the exploration of citizenship issues, and, most recently, Colonial Williamsburg Connect, where participants explore today’s issues through the events and struggles of the past. Our Webcasts and online history and citizenship resources supplement them.

In September we offered a free presentation of our Emmy-winning electronic field trip A More Perfect Union as a gift to the nation. About 5,000 schools and home schools representing 161,000 students took us up on the offer.

Our wide-ranging education for citizenship initiatives are helping young people to understand and appreciate the crucial role they play in the future of their country. According to the statistics, we are failing as a nation to achieve that objective in our schools. That must change if our republic is to be sustained.

One of the fundamental aspirations of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is to change the way history is taught, to improve it. The future must learn from the past if students are to be responsible citizens, understanding what it means to be an American.

Colin G. Campbell
President and CEO