#NEHstories: Ben Wright

Ben Wright

In the summer of 2013 I worked as a graduate assistant for Richard S. Newman’s National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for K‒12 teachers on the abolitionist movement. Every morning for four weeks, fourteen teachers gathered at the Library Company of Philadelphia for a graduate-seminar-style immersive dive into the scholarship on abolitionism. The four weeks explored the following four themes: gradual emancipation in the aftermath of the American Revolution, black activism, radical immediatism in the coming of the Civil War, and abolitionism after emancipation.

Each morning, the students, all of whom were K‒12 teachers, would arrive ready to discuss an academic article or another reading that reflected how scholars are thinking through the thorniest issues in the field. Afternoons then consisted of primary source analysis, individual research at the Library Company or Historical Society of Pennsylvania, or workshops on translating scholarship into classroom-ready curriculum. We were occasionally joined by leading historians including Drs. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Maurice Jackson, and James Oakes. We also made site visits to Mother Bethel AME Church, the Independence Visitors Center, and the battlefield at Gettysburg.

This was among the most challenging, enjoyable, and meaningful experiences of not only my short academic career but also my life. There is often a too-wide gulf between the worlds of K‒12 teaching and post-secondary education. Historians have too often outsourced the work of shaping curriculum to for-profit institutions or misguided state legislatures. The opportunity to get to know, encourage, and observe the tenacious spirit of these fourteen teachers forever changed the way I think about higher education, history, scholarship, and obligations of academics to wider publics.

Rich and I spent the following summer creating an enduring teaching resource based on the excellent curriculum he developed for the NEH seminar. The result is abolitionseminar.org, an interactive teaching resource that reflects current scholarship, houses classroom-ready lesson plans, links to relevant primary sources, archives relevant teaching media, and enables students to contribute to an interactive GIS map of the abolitionist movement. Over the years, Rich has transformed the lives of nearly 100 teachers. These teachers continue to change the lives of thousands of students. All of this was made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

15 June 2017

About the Author

Ben Wright is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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