When it comes to history, would you rather memorize facts and figures—or learn about the people who lived it and how their experiences continue to impact the world today?
Here at EF Explore America, we’re strongly in camp B—and we partner with people and organizations who feel the same. One of those organizations is Mount Vernon, the 18th century plantation and historic home of George Washington. They help students form personal connections to history by sharing real people’s stories, bringing the estate’s former residents to life through character actors and expert-led tours. In addition to teaching students about the past, these interactions can inspire students to reflect on ways they can shape a better future.
Below, we’re sharing three of the biggest takeaways we hope students gain when they take a trip to Mount Vernon on one of EF’s Washington, D.C. tours.
You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader
When students first learn about George Washington in grade school, they’re often told about his brilliance, courage, and honesty. (Remember the supposed Cherry Tree story?) He’s idolized everywhere from literal pedestals to the dollar bill, and almost treated as a mythological figure. Well, Mount Vernon wants to bring the American idol back down to scale. It might sound simple, but they show where he slept, where he ate, and where he died to help visitors internalize that he really was an ordinary person. Even more importantly, they share stories about his flaws, mistakes, and insecurities. “If we only portray our leaders from the past as perfect, people start to think, ‘Well I can never achieve that perfection, so why even try?’” explains Kathleen F., Mount Vernon’s manager of history interpretation. Instead, by showing this Founding Father as a real, complex person, Mount Vernon hopes to inspire today’s citizens to know they can also step up and get involved.
We can’t ignore the darkest parts of our history
“The number one question asked at Mount Vernon is whether or not Washington was a good enslaver,” says Tom P., a classically trained actor who has been working at Mount Vernon as a character actor for the past 15 years. “The answer we give is, ‘That’s really difficult to say, because is there such a thing as a good enslaver? Don’t think so.” Even with the ambiguities this question raises, Mount Vernon feels it’s vital to explore it—not only because Washington’s involvement with slavery was a critical part of his life, but also because the enslaved people of Mount Vernon deserve to have their stories told. Students on EF Explore America tours can learn about this community through specific tours focused on their experiences, as well as performances told through the perspectives of enslaved people such as Christopher Shields, whose escape to freedom was thwarted when someone discovered a letter he had written to his wife. By giving an honest portrayal of some of our nation’s most shameful history, Mount Vernon hopes visitors will see where our country has fallen short of its ideals and be inspired to work towards a better future. “In order to create ‘a more perfect Union,’” Jeremy R., Mount Vernon’s director of interpretation says, borrowing a phrase from the U.S. Constitution, “you have to understand you’re not there yet.”
A lot of times, there’s this idea that we know everything that’s happened, and there’s nothing new to find out. But it’s the exact opposite.
Kathleen F., Mount Vernon’s manager of history interpretation
There’s always more to learn
Mount Vernon houses the presidential library of George Washington, giving its character actors and expert guides access to a wide range of materials to help shape their work. However, researchers are always uncovering more primary sources—and as that research evolves, so do the stories told during trips to Mount Vernon. For example, it was only a few years ago that a history interpreter in New York found what’s believed to be the death certificate of Hercules Posey, Washington’s formerly enslaved chef who escaped to freedom. For years, nobody was positive what had become of Posey after he ran away, but the discovery of this document helped suggest he made it to New York as a free man. “A lot of times, there’s this idea that we know everything that’s happened, and there’s nothing new to find out,” Kathleen says. “But it’s the exact opposite.” Interpreting history means committing to an ever-evolving process of finding and reevaluating new sources, and knowing that even when we assume something to be true, we might still be missing part of the story.
Sarah is a senior copywriter at EF Education First. When she isn’t writing, you can find her browsing through bookshops, trying to cook, or going to improv class (which is basically just an excuse for adults to play make-believe).
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