First Monday

Colonial Williamsburg and The Idea of America by William E. White

For more than 50 years The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has employed media as a tool for extending the institution’s mission. Today’s digital technology encourages institutions to reach out beyond their customary boundaries. But how does that new technology impact the institution and its mission? This description of Colonial Williamsburg’s The Idea of America, a new high school curriculum project, offers a glimpse of what that potential might be.


The Museum Threshold
Strategic Planning
Education for Citizenship
The Idea of America
The Great Debate
Building the Classroom Resources
History and Current Events
The Virtual Republic
Teacher Development
Conclusion: A New Threshold




Over the past four years, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has been working to create new programming for the twenty–first century. The initiative has led us to reach outside the traditional confines and audiences of the museum. We are experimenting with tools and approaches that we hope will introduce our institution and mission to new and distant audiences — audiences that may not, under normal conditions, engage with Colonial Williamsburg.

But in many respects this is a “back to basics” venture. We have asked ourselves important key questions about our mission. We have examined our resources closely in an attempt to better deploy those assets. We have experimented with new technologies now readily available to museums and analyzed how they might best enhance our objectives.

What has emerged are some interesting opportunities that recast the institution’s role as a national resource for early American history content, artifacts, and resources. It is a new look at who we are as an institution and what we might reasonably expect to accomplish. And it begins with a very basic look at what museums do.

Museums are in the business of creating relationships. Museums must develop the resources to fulfill their core responsibility for curating, for preserving, and for interpreting their collections, of course. However, we must never lose site that the most essential component of our work is creating relationships with individuals. We bring individuals into our institutions and foster relationships with our collections, our programs, and our missions. These relationships are essential. Without them, our institutions cannot cultivate the donations, memberships, and support required to fulfill our core responsibilities. Because we are in the business of creating relationships, museums spend an inordinate amount of time working to perfect their “thresholds.”



The Museum Threshold

The threshold of the museum is what the public must cross in order to have a relationship with the institution. We greet visitors at our threshold. We orient them to the institution’s collection, mission, and services. We enlist their assistance to support the institution by selling tickets, accepting donations, and enrolling individuals in membership programs. We locate our stores at the threshold so that visitors can purchase mementos of their experience — a memento that will extend the individual’s relationship with the institution.

Traditionally, these museum thresholds are solid physical door frames, ticket desks, orientation programs, and graphic displays, but museums can no longer afford to think of their threshold in this physical way.

Communications technology has moved the location and the character of the threshold, whether we like it or not. Today it is possible for museums to create a relationship with our guests, or visitors, across the country even if they do not cross our physical threshold. Not only is it possible, increasingly our visitors expect to find our collections, missions, and programs accessible in a variety of different media that they can access from a distance. These individuals do not walk across our physical threshold, but they do cross a virtual one. And when they cross that virtual threshold they have substantial and vital experiences with our institutions, experiences that create strong lasting relationships between the virtual visitor and the institution.

Whether your institution embraces or shuns digital technology there is no doubt that the technology impacts your operations. Almost every museum today has embraced the promotional and informational potential of media. We post our schedules online. We announce upcoming events. We give directions to our site. We advertise our tickets and memberships. But today’s technologies can do so much more. Today’s digital technologies can dramatically extend the reach of the institution and introduce the institution to thousands of visitors who are outside the sphere of the institution’s normal relationship. Technology is moving the physical threshold of our museums.



Strategic Planning

The temptation, of course, is to jump headlong into new technology and tap its potential quickly. But just because we have new and innovative tools does not mean that we should discard our deliberate planning process. In fact, strategic planning becomes all the more important.

The potential for new “toys” to divert the institutional program and mission is considerable. Why shouldn’t the museum have all the latest “bells and whistles?” In fact, if the technology is deployed indiscriminately there is a very good chance that the intuition will suddenly find that they have modified program and mission to just to take advantage of new technological capabilities.

It is absolutely critical that the museum view media technologies as a pallet of potential tools. Then the critical question becomes, how can this pallet of tools help advance the mission and program of the museum? It is a subtle shift in perspective, but one that is absolutely necessary. And strategic planning is key.

Nearly ten years ago Colonial Williamsburg’s strategic planning initiative identified electronic outreach as a central element of the institution’s future. But it has not been as simple as overlaying a new media skin on our existing program. The outreach initiative has required a careful examination of the institution’s programmatic mission.

In 2006 Colonial Williamsburg refocused the education mission to highlight civic education. Building on the rich story of Williamsburg’s role in the American Revolution, educators focused on the continuing importance of those events and ideals to modern Americans. Colin Campbell, President of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, named this new initiative “Education for Citizenship.”



Education for Citizenship

In refocusing its interpretive mission, Colonial Williamsburg worked to insure that the mission and program of the institution were relevant to a modern audience. The planning effort focused on early American history as the core component of civic education. More than one generation of American children have slipped through our educational system without understanding how the American Revolution shaped our American social–political systems. Without that knowledge, they have little understanding of how and why our republic works. More important, they do not fully understand that the individual — “We the People” — hold the responsibility for crafting the republic to meet the needs of their time and the future.

Our republic does not exist because we have a Constitution or a Bill of Rights. It does not exist because we have a capital city or buildings to house our government. Our republic exists because individual citizens engage the critical issues of their time. They do this in their communities, in their state, and for their nation. The republic cannot continue unless America citizens understand their critical role.

The Education for Citizenship initiative was designed to help our visitors see the connections between the nation’s founding and the challenges we face today, to understand their role as citizens of the republic. That educational planning set the direction for our program initiatives.

Onsite, in the museum’s historic area, staff developed a new outdoor dramatic presentation called Revolutionary City. This series of interactive vignettes explores the impact of the American Revolution on every member in the eighteenth–century community — politicians, shopkeepers, women, families, day laborers, enslaved African Americans, and more. The program graphically demonstrates how the Revolution impacted every single individual in the community. It is a story of hope and promise, despair and shattered dreams. Most important, the program highlights for our visitors the importance of individuals and civic involvement in our American communities.

The Education for Citizenship initiative also shapes our outreach initiatives. Colonial Williamsburg, since the 1950s, has employed media as a way of extending the mission of the institution. In the 1990s, the Foundation launched a Web site,, and an educational television program series. The new Education for Citizenship planning impacted these programs too. The Emmy Award–winning Colonial Williamsburg Electronic Field Trip series embraced civic education as the central theme in its seven live television broadcasts to elementary and middle schools around the country. In addition, Colonial Williamsburg launched a new civic education Web site,, to engage a young adult audience with Foundation’s mission. The largest of our recent media outreach initiatives, however, is a new generation of curricular materials for the high school classroom, The Idea of America.



The Idea of America

Colonial Williamsburg is developing a new and innovative basal curricular program called The Idea of America. The program is designed to engage our nation’s high school students in the critical lessons of American citizenship. By using the lessons of American history the Colonial Williamsburg program teaches the practical lessons of citizenship. When asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had created, Benjamin Franklin allegedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Keeping the republic requires an active, engaged, and informed citizenry and the Colonial Williamsburg high school program is designed to develop and nurture a new generation of American citizens.

The core of the Project is an original, comprehensive curriculum built on the idea that America is, at its very core, an enduring debate about key American values. By examining that debate over time, students learn how citizens of the republic interact and direct the progress of our nation. The program provides a consistent framework and context for student investigation of American history as well as current events.


Figure 1: The Idea of America initiative contains several component parts including the high school curriculum, a current events Web site, The Virtual Republic, and a teacher development component
Figure 1: The Idea of America initiative contains several component parts including the high school curriculum, a current events Web site, The Virtual Republic, and a teacher development component.


This is a new generation basal classroom product, not a textbook. Students investigate a series of 65 digital case studies — or chapters — across the whole range of American history from America before colonization to the twenty–first century. Each digital case study includes interactive living history media, classroom activities, and digital resources including text, primary sources, video, audio, and gaming applications.

In addition, every case study will link to a current events site and to a social networking site we have tentatively named The Virtual Republic. And the whole of the program will be supported with a teacher development component.



The Great Debate

The Idea of America is built on a strong conceptual foundation that students use in order to learn and practice the critical analytical skills of engaged citizens. That conceptual framework is built on the revolutionary ideas resting at the center of Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretive program. Those revolutionary ideas launched a grand experiment in self–government that continues today. The framework examines America as — at its very heart and soul — an enduring debate. Individual citizens and citizen groups engage that debate to shape the course of the republic for their time and for the future. This unique and enduring American debate is about the values that we as Americans hold most sacred: our freedom, our equality, our unity, our diversity, our private wealth, our common wealth, our law, and our ethics. And the debate is critical because “we the people” must determine how we will balance and express these values.


Figure 2: The Great Debate and associated Value Tensions
Figure 2: The Great Debate and associated Value Tensions.


Americans believe intensely in our individual liberty and freedom. It is Patrick Henry’s revolutionary rallying call, “Give me liberty or give me death!” At the same time, we understand that we cannot live completely free. We live in common society with other Americans and so we must balance our individual freedom with some level of equality. We do not believe in anarchy (the consequence of complete freedom) and we do not believe in communism (the product of complete equality). We believe that these two opposing ideals can be balanced.

We can examine unity and diversity in a similar way. We believe that we are one unified people and in times when the nation is threatened we assemble as one nation to confront the danger. But we also celebrate our diversity. We celebrate our ethnicity, our immigrant origins, our different religious backgrounds, our differing political views, our distinctive regions, states, and communities. This diversity, however, does not make us less American. We believe there is a way to balance both our unity as a nation and our diversity as a people. How uniquely American! You do not have to go far in the world today to discover people who find diversity of ethnic origin, or religion, or region sufficient cause for civil war.

Just as we believe in individual liberty, we also believe in the individual’s right to accumulate private wealth. We expect that individuals who achieve will profit. At the same time we understand that individuals should and must contribute to the common wealth, to the benefit of others. We invest in our communities to make them stronger. Americans have the highest per capita income of any people in the world. At the same time, Americans are some of the world’s greatest philanthropists. But we do not count our wealth just in monetary terms. Americans believe, for example, in the power of education. Education creates private wealth in the individual — the individual is personally enriched though education. At the same time, we know that an educated citizenry is essential for the continuation of our democratic republic. Education contributes to the common wealth of the nation.

Finally, Americans are a people of the law. We believe the rule of law is the foundation of good government and good society. Still, we must admit that nearly every American hero is a law breaker. George Washington was a traitor to his king. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in defiance of the Supreme Court. Rosa Parks was arrested for taking a seat on a bus. These individuals acted not in accordance with the law, but in accordance with ethical values that superseded the law. They challenged Americans to do that which was ethical. Here again, however, Americans seek to balance the values of law and ethics because emphasizing one over the other can become problematic. Prohibition, for example, was established with an appeal to ethics, but Americans responded with lawlessness.



Building the Classroom Resources

Every case study in The Idea of America history program examines how previous generations of Americans engaged the great debate and American values. The program’s resources include:

As students examine a case study, they discover that Americans have been debating a variety of key issues for generations. How is the best way to use our natural resources? What is the role of religion in our republic? Does immigration strengthen or weaken our country? Students will discover that these and scores of other key issues are still debated today. Understanding how previous generations of Americans addressed these issues — sometimes well, sometimes poorly — provide critical insights for how they might engage these issues today.



History and Current Events

Most American history programs allude to current events, but they are print products. Current events are only as current as the publication date. The digital format of The Idea of America makes those connections explicit. Each case study links to a current events component sponsored, updated, and maintained by Colonial Williamsburg and a national news provider. These current events lessons will be designed to help teachers and students identify how historical issues are relevant in their lives and in their communities today.

Though the current events component is linked to the American history case study of The Idea of America, we believe that the current events materials will be located at an independent Web site. That Web site will be open and accessible to teachers across the country and will promote Colonial Williamsburg’s The Idea of America initiative. These will be classroom activities and each one will have a series of common components.


Figure 3: We will build the classroom current events activity in four basic steps
Figure 3: We will build the classroom current events activity in four basic steps.


Anticipatory Question or Statement. These questions will be designed as a bridge between the historical content and the current event issues. They will help students step back and take a larger view of the issues. How should the republic regulate immigration? What is the role of religion in our republic? How does the republic regulate the work of the military?

Tool Kit. Every activity will need a tool kit to help teachers and students examine the issue. The tool kit will include current news articles and/or media presentations, vocabulary, and brief historical perspective on the issue.

Current Issue and its relationship to the Great Debate. In a classroom activity students will discuss the current issue as it relates to the enduring American debate and values. From that classroom discussion students will formulate the class’ position on the issue.

Policy or Engagement Statement. Clearly, we will need a more exciting title for this essential component of the activity. The class will develop a policy or engagement statement that is designed to address the following essential points:


Figure 4: Students will create a policy or engagement statement for every current events activity
Figure 4: Students will create a policy or engagement statement for every current events activity.


Once the students grapple with the issues and take a stand, what more can we ask? We can ask them to take their policy or engagement statements to a larger arena and present their position to others. Colonial Williamsburg has a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to create a forum that we hope will extend this classroom activity into a national discussion between classrooms.



The Virtual Republic

With the help of the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), we will also create a forum where teachers and students can actively engage the national debate. “The Virtual Republic” will link students and classrooms across the country. We plan a program similar to “Model UN” programs popular in school districts across the country, except students will engage each other through an Internet–based interface. This social networking site will have “intelligence” provided by a team of Colonial Williamsburg educators and teachers who monitor the progress of the virtual republic and create situations students must respond to.

The Virtual Republic will help students take their examination of issues to the “next level.” It provides students with the tools to become active participants in the republic. Though this is an instructional site run and monitored by teachers, it will be open an available to every teacher. We expect students to engage directly with each other — as individuals and as classrooms — using text, audio, and video blogging tools along with debate forums and interactions. Their interactions in The Virtual Republic will have a structure.


Figure 5: The Virtual Republic will use social networking tools to help students across the country debate current issues
Figure 5: The Virtual Republic will use social networking tools to help students across the country debate current issues.


Policy or Engagement Statement. Students will begin by posting the policy or engagement statement they constructed as part of the current events activity. Other classrooms review that statement and announce their intention to debate the issues.

The Caucus. The activity begins with a period of time set aside for the classrooms to ask questions and discuss the policy or engagement statement. This gives students the opportunity to examine the issues carefully, investigate the details, and begin to shape their stand on the issue.

Briefs. After the caucus period, individual students and groups of students will file “briefs” that support, oppose, or propose a modification of the policy or engagement statement.

Conference. After the briefs have been filed and reviewed, students will gather for a conference to debate the policy or engagement statement.

Restate the Policy or Engagement Statement. Having heard and evaluated the opinions of others, the original class will have an opportunity to restate their policy or engagement statement. What suggestions and refinements (if any) will the class accept? Are changes and modifications necessary in order to gain the support of others? Do those changes and modifications severely compromise the class’s position?

The Vote. Once the original class has restated their policy or engagement statement, the caucus community — all those classrooms who have been participating — will vote on the proposal.

We hope that this will not be the end of the activity. We hope that in a significant number of classrooms teachers will encourage students to carry their proposal forward in their community. Perhaps that can be in a proposal to their school administration, the school board, local community leaders, civic organizations, state or federal representatives. Perhaps that will be through local editorial pages or blogs that influence opinion in the community. In the best of situations we hope that students will carry their academic exercise into actual application.



Teacher Development

The Idea of America initiative is innovative on several levels:

Consequently, Colonial Williamsburg will build a middle and high school teacher development program to compliment and support The Idea of America curriculum.

For nearly 20 years Colonial Williamsburg has conducted national teacher development programs for elementary and middle school teachers. Colonial Williamsburg currently has partnerships with more than 60 school districts around the nation to provide teacher professional development in American history funded through grants, gifts, and the Federal Department of Education’s “Teaching American History” grant program. With The Idea of America curriculum program Colonial Williamsburg will build on that strong base and infrastructure to develop our high school history teacher development program.

The Idea of America teacher development program will provide instruction and motivation, encouraging teachers to engage students in the inspirational, active learning, and participatory strategies critical to the program. It is essential to help teachers use technology as a vehicle for their students’ learning and engagement. Most critically, we must help teachers better understand how to teach “citizenship.”

In order to reach teachers across the country, The Idea of America will use onsite programs to train a national core of master teachers who can provide workshops in their region and school district. Most important, Colonial Williamsburg will develop a new distance learning format for teacher development using the best from higher education and museum interactive digital technologies to engage teachers in The Idea of America. These innovations will permit Colonial Williamsburg to work with thousands of teachers each year to improve the quality of American history education and American citizenship education across the country.



Conclusion: A New Threshold

Digital technology and The Idea of America initiative will introduce Colonial Williamsburg and our Education for Citizenship mission to thousands of high school students nationally. It is a revitalized American history curriculum; one that we hope has the potential for transforming American history and civics instruction. Just as important, this project has the potential for transforming our museum’s threshold. Reaching out to new and distant audiences, digital technology is the vehicle for sharing our mission with thousands who are unable to cross our physical threshold. End of article


About the author

William E. (Bill) White is the Theresa A. and Lawrence C. Salameno Director of Educational Program Development for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He leads the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, the Emmy–winning Electronic Field Trip series, and an extensive publishing initiative that provides lesson plans, primary sources, and activity kits for the classroom. Dr. White wrote and produced the Colonial Williamsburg Primary Sources CD–ROMs for grades 1–3 and grades 4–6 with Pearson Scott Foresman, which won awards from Media and Methods and Technology and Learning magazines. He also authored Pearson Scott Foresman’s History–Social Science for California for grades K–5. Dr. White received his Ph.D. from the College of William and Mary in 1996 and his BA in history from Christopher Newport University in 1976.

The author and his colleagues have described the program framework (The Great Debate and Value Tensions) in two recent education publications. See: Michael Hartoonian, Richard Van Scotter, and Author, 2007. “An Idea Called America,” Social Education, volume 71, number 5 (September), pp. 243–247. James E. Davis, H. Michael Hartoonian, Richard Van Scotter, and Author, 2007. “Special Section: The Colonial Williamsburg History and Civics Project,” Social Studies, volume 98, number 6 (November/December), pp. 226–245.


Editorial history

Paper received 7 July 2008.

Copyright © 2008, First Monday.

Copyright © 2008, William E. White.

Colonial Williamsburg and The Idea of America
by William E. White
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 8 - 4 August 2008