Last year, the American Historical Association released the results of a detailed survey about how Americans interact with history. One finding caught my attention.
Nine in ten respondents indicated they trusted museums (90%) or historic sites (88%) either “some” or “a great deal” to convey “an accurate account of history”—compared with only three in four who said the same about college professors (76%) or high school teachers (70%). The intensity of their trust was striking, too: Respondents were three times as likely to trust museums or historic sites a great deal as to say the same about high school teachers.
Looking closer, I found something especially interesting. Historic sites, even more than museums, enjoy a distinctive level of trust among Americans who tend to be skeptical of other information sources.
For example, only 18% of Republican respondents said they placed a great deal of faith in college professors, whom they were just as likely not to trust at all. But 57% of Republicans said they trusted historic sites a great deal. Except for religious texts, in fact, historic sites were the only sources of historical information that Republicans were more likely to trust strongly than Democrats were.
These results suggest to me that historic sites may be uniquely important tools for engaging skeptical audiences—including, perhaps, earning the trust of students in high school and college.
Mulling this over, it occurred to me that skeptical Americans probably think of historic sites as primary sources. They may place greater faith in them because they sense that historic sites give them more immediate access to the past. (Of course, there are several other important factors in play, too, but let’s not overcomplicate the blogpost.)
This immediately focused my attention on a teaching idea I’d already had. And it brought together different aspects of my idea, which I now saw with new clarity. I suddenly got more serious about making a plan.
This autumn, I’m scheduled to teach a modern U.S. history survey course at Rowan University in southern New Jersey. As it happens, Rowan’s campus was the site of a high-level Cold War diplomatic meeting in 1967.
That summer, President Lyndon Johnson invited the Soviet premier, Alexei Kosygin, to speak with him at Hollybush, also known as the Whitney Mansion. That was the home of the president of what was then called Glassboro State College.
As you may already have guessed, this building still exists on campus.
Usefully for my teaching purposes, the Glassboro Summit was not only local. It also involved several distinct topics of interest in this course, including nuclear disarmament, the Vietnam War, and the Six-Day War. Although Rowan’s summit was less immediately consequential than some others, therefore, it’s actually a pretty good window into the Cold War.
Today, the restored Hollybush mansion is maintained by Rowan University as a space for special events. So I’ve requested permission to hold class there one day this semester. And it now looks like I’ll be allowed to do it.
If my plan works, we’ll have an on-site discussion of primary sources related to the event. I’ll ask my students to read, view, or listen to those sources beforehand; furthermore, I’ll allow the students themselves to select some of the sources they’ll examine.
These primary sources may include:
- Eyewitness accounts (including recordings) from students and other local residents, collected 40 years later
- Archival film and audio recorded at the time
- Photographs and documents from the summit
- Newspaper articles related to the summit
- The commencement address Lyndon Johnson returned to give the following summer
Many of these sources are available through the Glassboro Summit Collection, a project hosted by the Rowan University Libraries Digital Scholarship Center. Before my class heads to Hollybush, therefore, I’m asking a DSC representative to come speak with us in our regular classroom about that collection.
If everything works, we’ll devote most of one class period to getting to know our digitized primary source collections, with help from a curator; then I’ll give students a few days to explore those collections on their own; and then we’ll convene in Hollybush to discuss what students have discovered—speaking together in the actual rooms where the summit took place.
I am pretty excited about this plan.