When it comes to teaching American history, James G. Basker is known for being able to bring the stories, facts, and events of the past to life.
As president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History since 1997, Basker has overseen the development of history education initiatives nationwide—including history high schools, teacher seminars, traveling exhibitions, digital archives, and the National History Teacher of the Year Award program.
He has also served as project director for several history exhibitions at the New York Historical Society, including “Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America” (2004–2005), and “Lincoln in His Own Words: An Intimate View of Our Greatest President” (2009).
Educated at Harvard, Cambridge, and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, Basker went on to teach at Harvard for seven years before coming to New York. His publications include “Amazing Grace: Poems about Slavery, 1660–1810” (2002), “Early American Abolitionists” (2005), and “American Antislavery Writing: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation” (2012), as well as scores of essays and educational booklets on various topics in English and American history and literature.
Scroll down to read our Q&A with this history enthusiast and esteemed teacher. — David Bruce Smith, founder, Grateful American™ Foundation and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, Grateful American™ Series
Jim Basker: My mother was an elementary school teacher and raised five kids in a very rural community. At about the age of 7, she took me for the first time to the museum downtown. I can remember looking in a case, and realizing, click, these people were here 100 years ago, and it was like magic to me. It was just fantastic, so I credit my mother for triggering that interest, which has just been there ever since.
Gilder Lehrman really came about because of contact with two philanthropists here in New York—Richard Gilder and Louis Lehrman. By the early 90s, they had built up very large collections of manuscripts of American History, 65,000 of them, going all the way back to George Washington’s time. Instead of putting their collection in a vault, they wanted to use it to improve history education across the country. So they brought me in to build programs, using the materials, to reach teachers, students, and the general public. Over the last 20 years we’ve been building those programs, and they are now in all 50 states and thousands of affiliate schools.
David Bruce Smith: What is the mission at Gilder Lehrman, and has it taken the route you anticipated?
Jim Basker: The mission is to promote the study and love of American history, especially in K-12, but also globally. The route certainly has changed, but that’s only natural. We try projects to see what works, and when new opportunities come along, we move in that direction. We have had partnerships with many historical institutions, and they have been invaluable to us. We’ve been on traveling exhibitions with facsimile artifacts that go all over the country.
We have also developed an affiliate school program, which hadn’t really been part of my original vision, that now reaches more than 5,000 schools, and it’s growing at the rate of something like 100 a month. We offer a whole host of opportunities and resources and training for people in affiliate schools. My goal there is eventually to reach every school in America. So I didn’t start out with a specific goal to achieve, but rather an eagerness to respond to opportunity and then pursue things that work.
David Bruce Smith: How do you explain the large number of people in this country who don’t know anything about American history? What’s not happening, why isn’t it penetrating more?
Jim Basker: Well, there are a lot of contributing factors to that, but among them are problems, frankly, in the school system. We have gone through periods where American history has been considered dull and uninteresting, even in some ways unimportant, which could not be further from the truth. How can you be an American citizen, an American voter, without a basic understanding of American history?
We recognize that there’s a great deficiency everywhere, but we focus on the positive. It’s about moving ahead. Our teachers need systemic support, including content mastery in teacher training programs. That’s an area where we try to provide support. We take a thousand or so teachers a year, from every level, into our summer seminars. These are week-long, intensive programs with great historians. Then they go back to their classes with new knowledge, new enthusiasm, and new materials. We figure every teacher in our training program represents 100 students a year who will be touched by this improved history teaching.
David Bruce Smith: One of the problems that schools are having is lack of funds. Why don’t big corporations fund these kinds of things in high schools, since those students are going to be their future employees?
Jim Basker: I would start with a different question. The United States government doesn’t support teaching American history anywhere. The Department of Education has zeroed out its last grant program to support the teaching of American history. That’s a bad signal; the US government can’t spare any money to teach American history. The amount of time students spend learning history has declined over the past 10 years to an average of only about half an hour a week. So the trends are going in the wrong direction, and I think we need to be pushing back.
One of the major initiatives now is the Common Core standards, which emphasize math and literacy. Without complaining about that at the policy level, we understand that social studies and history teachers feel they are being sidelined. So we developed a new curriculum initiative called Teaching Literacy Through History. It’s a parallel track where the literature or language arts course teachers use American historical documents.
In the literature track of this curriculum, students do close reading of the historical documents, and develop their verbal and writing skills by paraphrasing and citing evidence from the documents to support their interpretations. In the history or social studies track, the historical context of those documents is taught, and we are getting a big, positive response from schools.
David Bruce Smith: You’re talking about important nonfiction reading in literature classes, but I would argue that fiction is important, too. A “Huckleberry Finn” or a “Red Badge of Courage” can help kids understand important aspects of history, and it can help them develop mentally and socially in a way that nonfiction doesn’t, since fiction often teaches emotional truths.
Jim Basker: Our premise is that the literature on the literature syllabus now is entirely literature, and one of the mandates of the Common Core movement is that there will be a significant portion of challenging nonfiction added into the language arts curriculum. That doesn’t need to be science, or economics; it can be history and it can be historical text. Unpacking a speech like the Gettysburg Address can be a really wonderful way to look at how language functions and master those skills even while we appreciate the significance of what Lincoln did when he was delivering his speech.
Hope Katz Gibbs: You brought up this interdisciplinary aspect of learning history. What do you think of the new way Bill Gates is trying to teach history?
Jim Basker: I think any way that appeals to the imagination of students and that can open them to this intellectual development is great. Learning begins with an imaginative connection. If that lightbulb doesn’t go on, then it’s a dreary process, it’s not very efficient, and it doesn’t work. So finding ways to engage students imaginatively is a great starting point.
Hope Katz Gibbs: One of the things that I know you just launched is helping students in Advanced Placement (AP) classes study better. Tell us a little about that program and other programs that people can access with their laptops.
Jim Basker: We had focused more on teachers than students for years, but we discovered about two years ago that 20 percent of registered users on our website were students. We decided to turn and focus on what they need and talk to them directly. We’re developing an online, year-long, AP US history resource program. Our goal is to give students multiple avenues of access that might help them to do better in a meaningful way on the AP test. So far, the results are outstanding.
Hope Katz Gibbs: At your gala recently, in addition to former First Lady Laura Bush, some of the students spoke, and they were incredible. How did you make that decision not just to focus on celebrities and instead bring in the kids, too, and how does that reflect your mission here?
Jim Basker: That gala is a kind of miniature drama of what we are trying to do. We are trying to bring together all the important players in a significant way. So, yes, Laura Bush was our honoree. And then we had our donors in our room. And we had students who were a key part of the evening, too. We put them in the program because we must never forget that it’s the students who are the ultimate objective of what we are doing.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Let’s talk about the National History Teacher of the Year award. Tell us a little about the origin of that award, and who wins it, and what it means to that teacher.
Jim Basker: Around Thanksgiving of 2003, one of our trustees called me and said, “I may be able to put a proposal to the Bush family about something important in American history. What can we do?” And I said right away, “A teacher award.” The following Jan. 15, we were in the White House with then-First Lady Laura Bush taking the lead to announce the National History Teacher of the Year award.
We didn’t want it to be only a national honor, so we also award 50 state teachers of the year. We opened the nominations at every level, because we wanted the award to be community-based. So anyone can nominate a teacher. We really want this to be a large-scale honor spread across the whole history-teaching profession.
Learn more about the Gilder Lehrman Institute, where you’ll find resources for teachers, students, and anyone else hoping to reconnect with our collective history.