News & Ideas  -  Historic Decisions: Looking Deliberatively at the Past


Kettering program officer Joni Doherty recently contributed to Democracy Rising, a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. This post is based on an article that originally appeared in the 2020 issue of Connections.

Historic Decisions is a problem-based approach to civic education designed to support the development of skills needed for active participation in democratic life. In 2014 the Kettering Foundation began experimenting with developing materials to support deliberations about historical problems. During a Historic Decisions forum, participants deliberate about the options that were available during the historical period when the problem emerged, which generates a deeper understanding of the historical issue. In addition to developing deliberative skills, participants discover that decisions about public problems are made not only by leaders, but also by everyday people. Looking at history through this perspective expands participants’ sense of who can be a political actor and where political actions can occur. Politics, understood this way, is not only about what governments do, but also about how everyday people can work together to address the challenges of living well together in a democracy.

Historic Decisions draws on Kettering’s research in community-based deliberation. For more than 30 years, deliberative forums on contemporary issues have been used across the country to address public problems involving ethical dilemmas that demand the public’s attention. Addressing these what-should-we-do kinds of questions requires more than expertise or critical thinking; it requires a kind of moral reasoning that recognizes our responsibility to one another.

Building on this, over the last seven years museums across the country have been creating guides for deliberation about historic issues. The guides do not offer a counterfactual or hypothetical history. The information presented is historically accurate, including actions that were being considered at the time. While these forums can be part of a museum’s public program, and some have been used in college courses, this article focuses on the experiences of students in grades 4-12.

Both historic and contemporary issue forums offer frameworks for deliberating about options for addressing a problem that are grounded in things people value in democratic communities. Examples include:

  • being free to act according to one’s wishes,
  • feeling safe from harm,
  • being treated fairly by others, and
  • living in a secure and stable community.

Although everyone wants all of these things, people may prioritize one thing over another, depending on where they are in their lives, particular life experiences, or the historical context. For example, just after 9/11 in 2001, most people prioritized safety; 10 years later many wondered if too much freedom had been given away.

More typically, disagreements arise over what strategies should be used, not the things valued. For example, the issue guide developed by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights offers three options for how residents of Montgomery, Alabama, might reduce tensions during the 1956 bus boycott. One option supports immediate integration (fairness); a second, that individuals should make their own choices (freedom); and the last focuses on the safety of all residents. During a forum using this issue guide, many associated safety with increasing police presence but, as an African American participant observed, this may cause others to feel less safe. In that moment, participants became aware that their lived experiences differed, and the tone of the deliberation shifted. Advocates for immediate integration understood that while they may be willing to risk their own safety to achieve it, they saw more clearly how it might harm others. Those who thought everyone should be free to make his or her own choices were more aware of the trade-off: in a segregated society, some people have more choices available to them than others. As participants consider the trade-offs of each option, the complexity of the problem becomes apparent. And the ethical dilemma that people wrestled with more than 60 years ago became relevant to contemporary life.

Students who actively deliberate about the problem discover there is no “right” answer. Middle school participants in the Autry Museum of the American West’s annual Day of Deliberation demonstrated this in their reflections after the forums about how to make the best use of our natural resources in Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. After listening to a variety of perspectives, students found that coming to a decision was difficult. Sarah Wilson, the director of education at the Autry, shared some student responses:

  • “No option would be fair.”
  • “It’s hard to decide because there is no right decision.”
  • “A moral dilemma about thinking about yourself or others.”
  • “I feel bad for Congress; they have to make hard decisions!”

Insights and Challenges

1. At first, students may wonder how they can contribute to a historical deliberation. The premise of Historic Decisions forums is that people, whether or not they were recognized formally as citizens or even if they were enslaved, were deliberating, both privately and publicly, about what the best possible outcomes would be for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Making connections between the students’ lives today and the historical issue by inviting them to share a personal experience related to the issue today is a helpful entry point. Then, students can more easily imagine the issue faced by people in the past. Encouraging them to occasionally make comparisons between the past and their contemporary life experiences throughout a forum also enriches their thinking. For example, in A New Land, a Historic Decisions forum about the development of the Constitution, a moderator may encourage participation by saying, “While our forum is set in 1787, if a personal experience or contemporary issue seems relevant, please share it.” They may then go on to ask questions such as, “Given what people cared about in 1787, what was the best way to address the problem at that time?” and “As you think about what we care about today, what kind of government should we have now?”

Initially, museum staff and teachers were skeptical about the ability of students to balance between past and present, but after a forum they are typically surprised at how well it went. Students deliberate successfully about a historical issue with relatively few, but strategic, historical facts. Because the things people value remain consistent over time, the options serve as a bridge between past and present. Autry Museum educators who spoke with teachers after the forums reported that one observed, “They [her students] enjoyed the chance to discuss the issue more deeply.” Another noted, “Students were more engaged and more likely to participate [than in a regular discussion].”

2. Teaching history and moderating forums about historical problems are two different animals. Ideally, teachers will spend some class time in advance of a Historic Decisions forum laying out the historical groundwork and explaining what deliberation is and why it is important in a democratic society.  To avoid turning a forum into a lecture about history, which would disrupt the development of deliberative civic skills, the students are asked to imagine themselves as decision-makers. This creates a dynamic through which civic education and historical education are mutually reinforcing.

During a forum on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Abby Pfisterer, education specialist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History, observed a high school teacher prompting students to make connections between that issue and what they had learned throughout the course. She noted, “Specifically, he asked them to identify similarities between the offer of citizenship to the Californios in 1849 and [other course content]. . . .  Afterwards, the teacher talked with us about how the deliberation was an important platform to activate students’ prior knowledge and build their historical thinking skills.”

3. Contemporary participants can find thinking through options that are now almost universally rejected to be challenging. Not including these kinds of options in issue materials would erase important parts of our history, but the options can easily be dismissed if students impose their contemporary views on the past. To counteract this, participants need to keep in mind the distinction between the things people value, which remain constant, and the strategies used to achieve them, which change over time. Presentism—the interpretation of the past in terms of contemporary perspectives—is avoided through explicitly acknowledging differences between then and now.

Deliberating about why strategies now shunned were once acceptable can lead to greater insights into pervasive contemporary problems. Deliberating about those options can also bring to light some of the trade-offs we live with today and challenge contemporary moral complacency.

One example of an issue guide containing options that would be unacceptable today appears in Slavery or Freedom Forever: What’s at Stake in the Kansas-Nebraska Act? As students wrestle with the question of slavery in the territories, they consider three options: Remember Our Ideals (treat everyone fairly), Affirm Individual Choice (the settlers should be free to decide for themselves), and Protect Our Prosperity (national stability). The trade-offs raise disconcerting but productive questions about power, absolutist positions, the dangers of civil war, and the dangers of unlimited individual choice and self-interest.

After a forum using the Separate but Unequal in 1963 issue guide, Gabrielle Lampugh, then education director for the David Mathews Center for Civic Life, wrote about how students came to understand the risks associated with taking action. One student questioned whether the group would really be willing to put their lives on the line for something they believed in. In response, some acknowledged their fears about disappointing their families or damaging their families’ reputations. One student observed, “It’s easy to say you would stick your neck out to do the ‘right thing,’ but there is a reason very few people actually do that.” The moderator concluded, “It’s really easy to say what should and should not be done when it isn’t you doing it. But they recognized the question the deliberation was posing: ‘What are you, personally and collectively, willing to do to impact change?’ And they were deeply self-aware and introspective about their own strengths and weaknesses as they answered this question.”

4. The museum staff who participated in a multiyear research project using Historic Decisions concluded that role-playing is not effective. Role-playing undermines the civic purpose of Historic Decisions because it requires students to act out the views of historical characters instead of wrestling with the problem themselves. Instead of doing the actual work of deliberating, they are stuck in an imaginary role. In addition, and quite harmfully, role-playing can result in caricatures or in reinforcing stereotypes.

5. Intellectual flexibility and honesty are hallmarks of a deliberative frame of mind. Mark Wilson, director of the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities at Auburn University, shared a story about how one fourth grader changed her mind as she deliberated about an action she had initially supported during a forum on the Creek War of 1813–14. When she realized the consequences of that action, she stopped mid-sentence and said, “No, that’s not what I think we should do. Never mind!” Deliberation helps participants to hear others, but often, as she demonstrated, it helps us hear ourselves.

Beyond the Forums

Integrating Historic Decisions into museum programs and school curricula has led to closer relationships between museums and local schools. A number of museums, including the National WWI Museum and Memorial and the Senator John Heinz History Center, have offered workshops on deliberative practices to teachers, often in the summer, so they can better understand the ideas and practices that are the foundation of this approach to learning about history and about democracy. The Heinz History Center has experimented with using primary materials from their archive to create frameworks with both students and teachers. Some museums, including the Autry and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, have developed websites with supplemental materials for teachers and students.

The Smithsonian is working with students, teachers, museum educators and curators, and historians on five issue guides. Three are complete and two are still in development. One of the guides addresses the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Native American students and their teacher have shared critical insights about their history and its contemporary connections. During a test of the draft, they engaged in a challenging conversation about the complexity of this history and the best approach for inviting others to grapple with it. The students shared their concerns about what cultural information could enable non-Native American students to thoughtfully and respectfully engage with this content. While the students did not come to a shared agreement, they used the Historic Decisions issue framing as an entry point for an important conversation about their history and relationship to others. Two additional guides are now available from the National Museum of American History. One positions forum participants as policy advisors who deliberate about immigration reform; the outcome was the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. The other guide for deliberation is set in 1849, when Californio indigenous people considered what their community should do in response to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidago, which changed the border between the United States and Mexico.

In Teaching History for the Common Good, Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik recognize that the past can be used “in a variety of ways, and for a variety of purposes.” One of these is to use history’s “potential to prepare students for participation in a pluralist democracy.” The Historic Decisions research over the past five years has demonstrated how this potential can be realized.


The following issue guides are available for download at

The Pueblo Revolt: What Should be Done in the Face of Oppression? (1678)
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

1776: What Should We Do?
National Issues Forums Institute

A New Land: What Kind of Government Do We Want? (1787)
National Issues Forums Institute

The Creek War of 1813-14: What Would You Do?          
The Caroline Marshall Draughon Center for the Arts & Humanities, Auburn University / The David Mathews Center for Civic Life

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: What Do You Do When the Border Crosses You? (1849)
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Slavery or Freedom Forever? What’s at Stake in the Kansas-Nebraska Act? (1854)
The New England Center for Civic Life, Franklin Pierce University

Bleeding Kansas: How Do We Grow Our Fractured Nation? (1857)
Lancaster History

Moving Towards Freedom: What Rights and Opportunities Should Be Afforded to African Americans? (1866)
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Hetch Hetchy How Do We Make the Best Use of Our Natural Resources? (1913)
The Autry Museum of the American West

World at War: What Role Should the United States Play in International Conflicts? (1915)
National World War I Museum and Monument

Woman Suffrage and the Great War: What Should Woman Suffrage Advocates Do in Response to the Great War? (1917)
National Woman’s Party/Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

Forging a New City: How Should We Shape Modern Pittsburgh? (1946)
Senator John Heinz History Center

The Long Road Home: How Should We Help People Still Suffering Because of World War II? (1952)
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum

What Should Be Done to Ease Racial Tensions in Montgomery in 1956?
National Center for Civil & Human Rights

The Hart-Celler Act: What Would a Fair Immigration System Look Like? (1965)
Smithsonian National Museum of American History