Presidential libraries aren’t simply repositories for policy papers and gifts from foreign leaders.
The twelve libraries in the National Archives Presidential Library system are also epicenters for learning, especially for children, about an array of topics from healthy eating to the ins-and-outs of a political campaign.
“With the paucity of civics curricula in secondary schools, so few young people are exposed to our political process and these programs can help students learn about the system,” Lara Brown, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University, said in an interview.
Since it opened in 2004, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock has made many summer programs an essential part of its purpose. That’s because as Bill Clinton said in 1999, “Our administration has made education a high priority.”
It’s hosted an array of camps including ones focused on rock and roll, space, and culinary arts. The culinary camp is a passion of Clinton’s. He has been involved in various obesity and healthy eating initiatives.
At the camp, children learn skills that the chefs hope will help them make better choices in food selection and teach them how to cook in a healthy manner. They learn various cooking skills that they show off at a reception for their family.
“Every summer, the Clinton Presidential Center Culinary Camps promote healthier childhoods in a fun, hands-on learning environment,” Stephanie Streett, executive director of the William J. Clinton Foundation said in an interview. “The culinary staff of our on-site restaurant, Forty Two, teach students how to make healthy food choices, maintain their own garden, and cook meals that their whole family can enjoy. We are pleased to offer this unique program that allows students to realize new interests and skills they can use for a lifetime.”
At the end of the camp, they earn their own chef’s jacket.
In early August, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, Calif., hosts a day-long “Citizenship Counts Training.”
“What better way to harness the civic energy of the 2012 election, than to work with students to focus on their rights and responsibilities as American citizens,” the Reagan Library website states.
The George H. W. Bush Library in College Station, Texas, is currently hosting a camp focused on presidential elections and democracy. Students learn about candidates’ campaign travel and stump speeches and even how to use a teleprompter – just like a politician. They also learn history through activities such as scavenger hunts, crafts and field trips.
This camp is important because for many kids the 2012 presidential election will be the first they remember and that's why it focuses on the importance of voting.
"Our Exploring History Summer Camp is a fun and interactive means of engaging kids within the community to learn more about history, government, science and many other important topics," Will King, the library's marketing and communications director, said. "Summer camp is an extension of our year round education programs that reach thousands of pre-school to high school students each year through on-site classroom and distance learning programming."
Even some of the older libraries make sure to have a camp component.
The Dwight D. Eisenhower library in Abilene, Kan., has a unique half- day program called Five Star Leaders. It challenges students in grades 8-12 as well as college students and adults to “solve a problem, confront a crisis, or accomplish a mission.”
The moderator gives participants copies of original documents from manuscript collections and audiovisual archives. The students take on challenges faced by historical figures. The program attempts to mirror history as closely as possible.
Such programs are critical, political scientist say, especially in today’s world.
“It is extraordinarily important in today's often cynical media environment for presidential libraries to be reaching out to help young people see the positive side of politics,” Brown said. “We need young people to view politics as a viable career path – one that involves both public service and salient policy work – so that more will get involved and help make a difference in our government.”
Related Stories on TakePart:
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com