October 17, 2011

Progress update: October 17

  • Moved from the staging to production environment; basic content (blog, About, Contact, Legal) being migrated.
  • Software development continues with core functionality in-place.
  • UI and design work underway.  Implementation planned for November.
  • Introduction to The History List for the quarterly gathering of the Blackstone Valley group of historical societies planned for 10/24. 
  • Invitations to private beta available beginning 10/24. 
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October 1, 2011

Why The History List?

The inspiration and motivation for creating The History List came from three experiences: Serving on the board of our local historical society, attending little known events and looking for other similar events, and seeing the way in which traveling in the region created the interest to read more about the history behind the markers and monuments.

The challenges of local historical societies

When we moved to New England from outside of the region, I wanted to learn more about the history of the old (c. 1780) Photo from the early 1900shouse we'd just bought.  This led me to the local historical society and, before long, election to the board and an appointment to our city's historical commission.  This, in turn, led me to take a closer look at the challenges facing organizations working to preserve local history.  Other than not enough time or volunteers, and not enough money, which are problems common to almost all organizations regardless of mission, two stood out:

  • Making their collections available to interested individuals, which includes the challenge, especially for small organizations, in simply cataloging the collection.  And given that fewer people are attending local history museums and historical societies, making collections available online becomes even more important, which poses another set of challenges.
  • Making people aware of their events and programs.  While most of the programs presented by a local historical society may be of interest mainly to the residents of that community, some programs are of broader interest, and there are few good avenues for publicizing these beyond the community where they're presented.  Likewise, for those interested in learning more about a certain topic, where do you turn to stay updated on programs and events that would be of interest?

The challenge of discovering little-known events

The first fall we were here we happened to notice a sign in front of the fire station of a nearby town promoting an event that Saturday.  We went and had a great time.  It was perfect in every way.  There weren't that many people there, which was fine for us as spectators, but it did make you think that more people would have attended if more would have known about it.

Talking with one of the reenactors that afternoon, I asked where I could go to find out about similar events.  After thinking for a minute, he pulled out his business card and wrote his personal e-mail address on it: "If you'll send me an e-mail message next spring, I'll send you a link to a couple of websites that list other Revolutionary-era reenactments in the region."

A few weeks later I sat in on discussion with the executive directors of some of the larger historical societies in the area and heard the plan they were considering for promoting events at their organizations.  I offered up a few ideas, and realized later that, the more I thought about a scalable, sustainable approach, the more interesting and the more challenging designing the solution became.  (A few years later I had the opportunity to brief this same group and invite them to participate in the closed beta for institutions.)

The experience of coming face with historyDawes - Revere capture site

The last experience was the most motivating: Becoming more and more interested in learning about the history behind the monuments and markers that I saw around me.  (The marker on the spot where Dawes, Revere, and Prescott were stopped on the morning of April 19, 1775 is shown at right.  Later that morning the first shots were fired in the Revolutionary War.)  And when I started reading about the people behind these events I realized that history was so much more than the names and dates learned in school.  Instead it was the personal stories of decision, courage, and sacrifice:  How would I have reacted if I'd been there?  What decision would I have made?  Would I have been willing to make the sacrifice they made?

In most cases, it wasn't until I read the first-hand accounts and dug deep in the research and biographies that I began to understood the complexity of many of the events that have been reduced to a paragraph or two in most history school books.  And it was then that I started to make the connection between the events "in history" to the choices we face today.

The History List: Bringing you face to face with history.


October 20, 2011 update: The ideas above are captured in a presentation in this recent post.

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September 21, 2011

Building critical thinking skills

The editorial [pay wall] below, which appears in today's issue of The Wall Street Journal, makes the case that an understanding of history creates a better potential employee.  (Emphasis added.)

The Education Our Economy Needs

Norm Augustine

We lag in science, but students’ historical illiteracy hurts our politics and our businesses.

In the spirit of the new school year, here’s a quiz for readers: In which of the following subjects is the performance of American 12th-graders the worst? a) science, b) economics, c) history, or d) math? 

With all the talk of America’s very real weaknesses in the STEM subjects (science, technology, English and math), you might be surprised to learn that the answer—according to the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress—is neither science nor math.  And despite what might be suggested by the number of underwater home loans, high-school seniors actually fare best in economics. 

Which leaves history as the answer, the subject in which students perform the most poorly.  It’s a result that puts American employers and America’s freedoms in a worrisome spot.

But should a C grade in history matter to the C-suite?  After all, if a leader can make the numbers, does it really matter if he or she can recite the birthdates of all the presidents?

Well, it’s not primarily the memorized facts that have current and former CEOs like me concerned.  It’s the other things that subjects like history impart: critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently.  Such skills are certainly important for those at the top, but in today’s economy they are fundamental to performance at nearly every level. A failing grade in history suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation’s story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors. 

Having traveled in 109 countries in this global economy, I have developed a considerable appreciation for the importance of knowing a country’s history and politics.  The good news is that a candidate who demonstrates capabilities in critical thinking, creative problem-solving and communication has a far greater chance of being employed today than his or her counterpart without those skills. 

The better news is these are not skills that only a graduate education or a stint at McKinsey can confer.  They are competencies that our public elementary and high schools can and should be developing through subjects like history.  Far more than simply simply conveying the story of a country or civilization, an education in history can create critical thinkers who can digest, analyze and synthesize information and articulate their findings.  These are skills needed across a broad range of subjects and disciplines. 

In fact, students who are exposed to more modern methods of history education—where critical thinking and research are emphasized—tend to perform better in math and science.  As a case in point, students who participate in National History Day—actually a year-long program that gets students in grades 6-12 doing historical research—consistently outperform their peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies but in science and math as well. 

In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers—but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly. 

Now is a time to re-establish history’s importance in American education.  We need to take this opportunity to ensure that today’s history teachers are teaching in a more enlightened fashion, going beyond rote memorization and requiring students to conduct original research, develop a viewpoint and defend it.  If the American economy is to recover from the Great Recession—and I believe it can—it will be because of a ready supply of workers with the critical thinking, creative problem-solving, technological and communications skills needed to fuel productivity and growth.  The subject of history is an important part of that foundation.


Mr. Augustine, a former Under Secretary of the Army, is the retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.

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