By Michelle Burrelli
One hundred high school students from 29 states and as far away as the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific came to Loudoun County in late June to attend the first National History Academy, a five-week summer residential program where they will have the opportunity to learn by experiencing American history in the places it happened.
The Academy is the creation of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, the Loudoun-based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the history within the 180-mile corridor from Gettysburg, PA, to Montpelier in Virginia. Partnering organizations for this effort include the College Board, the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Civil War Trust, and the Piedmont Environmental Council.
This first-of-its-kind educational experience was conceived to help address the crisis in American civic and historical literacy. A recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 18 percent of high school seniors showed proficiency in American history, and just 23 percent were proficient in civics. Of the seven subjects included in the report, students scored lowest in their knowledge of U.S. history.
“We cannot have a democracy without future leaders and citizens who know and understand our history,” said JTHG President and CEO Bill Sellers.
Academy students (chosen from among 235 applicants) learn through films, lectures, and reading original texts, and—guided by nationally recognized scholars—by visiting the nation’s most important historic sites, in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground region. The National Scenic Byway of U.S. Route 15 bisects this National Heritage Area, designated by Congress and the National Park Service in 2008.
From their temporary rural Loudoun residence at Foxcroft School near Middleburg, students will travel on some of Loudoun’s beautiful tree-lined country roads, along which hundreds of historic houses, barns and churches take their places in the landscape, and multiple historic villages retain the look and feel of their 18th- and 19th-century origins.
“The goal of the Academy is to give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in learning at actual historical sites,” stated filmmaker Ken Burns in a video supporting the new initiative. “These experiences, led by master teachers and distinguished historians, will create a deep understanding of our country and its founding principles.”
Students will read and discuss cases from the History of American Democracy curriculum developed by Harvard Business School Professor David Moss, who will teach the Academy’s first case, on James Madison, at Madison’s home, Montpelier.Other scholars will deliver guest lectures over the course of the program.
From their base in Loudoun, students will be within a three-hour drive of dozens of relevant locations: Shenandoah National Park, Harpers Ferry, the C&O Canal, the Appalachian Trail, and the National Mall; presidential homes and retreats, including Washington’s Mount Vernon, Jefferson’s Monticello, Madison’s Montpelier, and those of Monroe, Lincoln, Wilson, Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt; numerous Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and Civil War battlefields, the Powhatan Indian Village, Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and, of course, Washington, DC. Many other nearby sites are important to the fight for civil rights, and tell the stories of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Students attending the Academy represent not only a broad cross-section of the United States geographically, but ethnically and politically as well, to help fulfill a secondary goal of the program—to improve civil discourse among Americans of differing backgrounds and views. White, African-American, Asian American, Hispanic, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and multi-ethnic individuals all are represented in the student population.
During the Academy’s opening week, students visited the National Archives and got a personal tour of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, led by Director Emeritus Brent Glass. Later in the session,students also will attend a performance of the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton: An American Musical” at The Kennedy Center.
The National History Academy expands the educational offerings of JTHG to the high-school level. Previous learning opportunities for younger students included the award-winning “Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student” service learning projects and “Extreme Journey Camp” for middle school students. In addition, JTHG, which comprises more than 350 municipal, business, and nonprofit organizations within the four-state region,has developed partnerships with teacher development opportunities and courses.
Michelle Burrelli is the chief operating officer of the National History Academy and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area. JTHG is a member of the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition, which compiles the In Our Backyard series. For more information about the National History Academy and the Coalition, go to historycamp.com, and loudouncoalition.org, respectively.