The Interview:
Lesley S. Herrmann

By Harold Frost, 2008

“There is tremendous ferment right now in history teaching after years of neglect of younger students. We are very happy to be part of it.”

Lesley S. Herrmann is executive director of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, a nonprofit based in New York City that promotes the study of American history through book prizes, teacher training, multimedia shows, support for history high schools, a History Teacher of the Year Award, and other activities. She has been executive director of GLI since its founding in 1994. The institute’s website is here; see here for an interview with a GLI Teacher of the Year.


Q. If you would, Ms. Herrmann, please give a basic explanation of how GLI was founded and its mission.

A. The founders are Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman, who are philanthropists and businessmen here in New York, passionate about history, dedicated to improving how the subject is taught in our schools.

GLI’s roots are in the 1980s. In those years, Richard and Lewis devoted considerable effort to collecting American historical documents – letters, diaries, sketchbooks, pamphlets, photographs, maps – a tremendous array of primary source material, more than 60,000 documents now. Priceless stuff – for example, thousands of unpublished letters by Civil War soldiers. They didn’t want these materials to just sit in a vault and gather dust. They saw these documents as living history and they wanted them used.

Richard Gilder, left, and Lewis Lehrman, right,
with Jean Fagan Yellin, author of
“Harriet Jacobs: A Life” (2004).

They were concerned that kids were not learning American history. They saw that some of the fault for this could be attributed to how the subject is taught. In their opinion, the lack of historical knowledge constituted a crisis. They felt, and feel, that you have to know your history if you’re going to be a good citizen, and that good citizens are essential to a strong democracy.

So in 1994 they started the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to promote the study and love of American history by using these incredible documents. That was the genesis. We have grown from there. Today we have a lot going on. First of all, we make sure these documents get used. We pay for 15 college sophomores and juniors to come to New York for five weeks every summer to do original research working with the documents. Another 50 college students come for one week. We get a lot of applications for those slots, it’s a coveted honor among college history students.

Every summer we sponsor week-long seminars for history teachers from high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools – also for park rangers and various others – conducted by top university scholars. We do 32 of these every summer on different campuses. These seminars – they’re just wonderful! – learning from a top scholar, learning from one’s peers, reading, going on field trips, gathering techniques for teaching an era. Re-energizing. Generating a new sense of purpose and commitment. And, of course, the over-riding goal is to enhance student’s understanding of our past.

We have helped develop 41 history high schools around the country. We thought up the idea of such schools – at least, we don’t think anyone else was talking about this before we did! We support these schools financially, and with ideas and programs, and we help them set up support networks with local colleges and universities and with donors. The first one of these was the Academy of American Studies, founded by us in New York City in 1996. The idea is to teach kids the same things as any other high school – math, science, gym and so on – but to give them intensive work in American history and world history for four years. A kid has to be pretty motivated to go to one of these high schools. They’re rigorous. They’re for college-bound students. Every history high school in our network gets GLI materials. And we go out of our way to accept teachers from our network schools for our summer seminars.

The amount of money we ofer to the history high schools varies. These schools have many different funders; funders prefer to support schools in their region or district; they offer different levels of support and we make up the difference.

Q. I’ll insert a link here to an article about the Academy of American Studies. What is GLI’s annual budget?

A. $8.8 million a year. More than half of that comes from sources other than Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman. We have several strong corporate sponsors.

Q. You’re a scholar of Russian Literature by training. How did you become an advocate for American history instruction?

A. I got my Ph.D. in Russian Lit from Columbia in the 1980s and went into non-profit administrative work. In the early ’90s I was with the Municipal Arts Society in New York and I was looking for something new. I was lucky enough to fall into this. Here’s the ironic aspect – until I got this job and began studying American history on my own I never realized what a fabulous story it is! I didn’t study it in college or graduate school at all because I had been so badly taught in high school. I thought history was boring! I thought it was just this dry stuff that came out of a boring textbook! I thought it was junk that barely kept me awake! I can hardly believe now that I thought that, but I did. I went to a school in a suburb of Philadelphia. There was nothing in any of my history classes that engaged me intellectually.

I took the job at GLI because I could sense this excitement about the place. I started reading on my own, wonderful books by David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I had a chance through GLI to interact with great professors from all over the country – it was incredible! It changed my life! I’m on a mission now. I want to make sure that today’s students don’t have to go through the boring drill that I went through.

Q. You started with GLI in 1994? 

A. Correct, May of 1994, just as we were getting the summer seminar program going. I jumped right into that. We conducted our first seminar that July led by David Brion Davis at Yale, teaching a course on the origins and nature of slavery in the New World. We needed 30 teachers in a big hurry to attend this seminar, and I started making phone calls and recruited them in a flash – I called all the high schools I could think of and said, “I need history and social studies teachers!” That first year, the teachers were from New York City; now they are from all 50 states and overseas as well. We have a huge network and get thousands of applications. In 2008 we’ll have 29 seminars in the U.S. and three in Great Britain.

Q. I want to ask you about GLI’s “History in a Box” series. These are boxes you send out with neat stuff inside.

A. I saw something similar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – boxes about art topics. It seemed like history would lend itself to a multimedia kit.

Q. I have a one here titled “Abraham Lincoln: People, Places, Politics: History in a Box.” It’s a box made from heavy cardboard. It’s the size of a small briefcase. It weighs probably a couple of pounds. It’s got a carrying handle.

A. We produced that one this year in anticipation of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 2009. It’s the second History in a Box. The first was “The Founding Era.”

Q. It’s brimming with stuff. The main item is a 184-page resource book about Lincoln. It’s well-illustrated and consists of excellent reproductions of primary source documents from the Civil War era, and from Lincoln’s life, organized by topic. The box has also got 10 beautiful color posters – they’re about 20 inches wide by 15 inches tall – they reproduce primary source material such as Page One of the Charleston Mercury from November, 1860, the day South Carolina decided to secede. Also among these posters are sketches from a Union army officer, the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s hand, and so on.

The box includes eight full-color posters sized 8 and 1/2 by 11, printed on heavy card stock, showing Civil War scenes. It’s got a very large poster that’s a timeline of Lincoln’s life. Also a couple of CD-ROMs; a DVD; and various other items. It’s a wonderful multimedia package – very well produced, nice paper, high quality.

A. Thank you! We’re very proud of it.

Q. What’s on the DVD?

A. Eight excellent lectures by college professors about Lincoln.

Q. What’s the price of a box?

A. $95. Schools are buying them like hotcakes. Our network schools receive them free of charge.

Q. What’s the next box going to be about?

A. We have one on the American West scheduled for release in the summer of 2009. We also have a box called “American History: The Elementary School Edition.”

Q. I see that the editor of the Lincoln box is Steve Mintz of the University of Houston, who also has an affiliation with Stanford.

A. Yes. He’s a leader in using new technologies and techniques to teach history. We gathered input from several scholars for the contents of the box. Our goal is to provide a balanced, rigorous, thorough perspective on Lincoln, and the Civil War, with no particular agenda.

Q. This leads to my next question. The politics of Mr. Gilder and Mr. Lehrman are conservative. Gilder, for example, has been closely associated with Newt Gingrich. Gilder and Lehrman funded a public exhibition about Alexander Hamilton in 2005 that received a scathing review in The New York Review of Books (February 10, 2005). Does the political orientation of Gilder and Lehrman affect GLI policy? I will mention, I spoke today about GLI with Eric Foner, as distinguished a historian as we have, and a liberal, and he gives you folks a thumbs-up.

A. We have no political agenda. The best summation of the Alexander Hamilton controversy is contained in a subsequent issue of The New York Review of Books, May 26, 2005.

Q. Here’s a link.

A. In any case, I don’t see Alexander Hamilton as a right-wing symbol. Describing him as such, as some people do, really shows how terribly polarized we’ve become in this country. It’s hooey to think of him like that, it’s ridiculous reductionism.

Q. Do you think, overall, that history instruction for young people has improved in America over the last 15 years or so?

A. I’d like to think so, yes. I think GLI can take some credit for that, but a lot of things are going on today that have had an impact, such as the Teaching American History grants, sponsored by the federal government with the involvement of private organizations such as GLI. I should mention in this context our Teacher of the Year program; it’s been very successful. There is tremendous ferment right now in history teaching after years of neglect of younger students. We are very happy to be part of it.