Bringing History to the Classroom: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Noelle Haro-Gomez/The Herald via AP
Bringing History to the Classroom: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Noelle Haro-Gomez/The Herald via AP
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Though it’s easy to be pessimistic about America’s future after such a traumatic year, James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, feels optimistic: “History teaches us that our country has faced terrible crises in the past and still found its way forward.”

GLI offers a full-spectrum view of American history to classrooms and the general public by providing a vast collection of primary source documents, along with education programs and interactive online exhibits.

Housed at the New-York Historical Society, GLI’s publicly accessible archive contains a treasure trove of documents from 500 years of American history, from Christopher Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to letters soldiers sent back home while fighting World War II and in Vietnam.

GLI’s namesakes are the late Richard Gilder, an investor who helped revitalize New York’s Central Park and the New-York Historical Society, among other important New York City landmarks; and Lewis Lehrman, an entrepreneur, academic, and author of many well-received books such as Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point and Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War.

Basker has fond recollections of Gilder, who died earlier this year. “Dick rejoiced at the flow of immigrants into America and did everything he could to encourage it,” he says, “because of his passionate belief that our country was based on a set of ideals anyone of any background could embrace and make their own.”

“Dick was deeply patriotic, but not blindly so,” Basker continues. “He had the openness and courage to face America’s past with honesty, but he also believed in the potential of people and of our country to continue to pursue those ideals and make life better for all. His vision, generosity, and humanity benefited everyone who knew him, and millions more who did not.”

Beginning with a sizable initial collection of historical documents and a single seminar in 1994, GLI’s archives have grown to more than 75,000 documents. The Institute now partners with approximately 28,000 schools, 55,000 teachers, and 7.8 million K-12 students through its Affiliate School Program, which brings GLI’s resources to the classroom. In the past year, nearly 20,000 teachers have brought GLI’s education materials to 2.8 million students nationwide.

Searchable by time period and topic, GLI’s library of digital resources includes curriculum, essays, lesson plans, online exhibits, primary sources, study guides, teaching resources, and videos.

GLI’s Online U.S. History Exhibitions explore key topics in American history, with each exhibit featuring illustrated displays, videos, maps, and historical timelines. Its Inside the Vault series, hosted over Zoom, explores rare documents in the collection, while its Online History School and History Camp for K-12 students feature Gilder Lehrman Master Teachers investigating important topics in U.S. history such as the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Partnering with the producers of the smash-hit musical Hamilton, GLI’s Hamilton Education Program helps students understand the American Founding by following in the footsteps of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and creating performance pieces. Offered to students in grades 6-12 free of charge, HEP Online “consists of classroom activities and digital resources that can be incorporated into a regular curriculum on the Founding Era,” according to GLI’s website.

A major resource for students preparing for the AP U.S. History exam is GLI’s comprehensive study guide, which more than 900,000 students have used. The study guide features videos, timelines, primary sources, and essays by notable historians that will help students improve both their knowledge and their test scores.

For postgraduate students, GLI’s Pace-Gilder Lehrman MA in American History is a fully accredited degree program that has already admitted over 1,000 students.

Other resources include History Now, an online journal containing essays by well-known historians, and the Books Breaks series, in which historians discuss their work every Sunday at noon.

Basker says that given everything the country has faced in 2020, he is especially proud of how GLI staff have responded, noting that they have “worked overtime to get our in-person offerings transformed into digital programs and to launch several new programs, many of which have already become staples of the Institute.”

With GLI’s resources, teachers can ensure that students will continue to build their civic knowledge, even in these challenging times for classroom learning.

Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal.

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