Founding Principles

To Begin the World Anew

James Billington, Librarian of Congress, hosts student researchers from Montana at his office in Washington, D.C. every year. Students from Roundup presented their findings in May, 2003. From left, James Billington, Andrew Alger, Cole Hough, Josh Eickhoff, and teacher Tim Schaff.

The Heritage Project has its roots both in Washington, D.C. and in rural Montana. It tries to cultivate a dual focus among young people, helping them to see the local situation in all its intimate details while developing their awareness of the greater world.

Montana is a young society, somewhat like the American colonies before the Revolution. The founders were provincials, comfortable in the colonies but aware of their limitations through their knowledge of the European capitals.

Sometimes the most creative forces of cultural renewal come from the provinces. In his brilliant essay "Provincialism," art critic Kenneth Clark says that metropolitan art has a tendency to become repetitive, over-refined, academic, and self-absorbed as it elaborates, polishes, and weakens its initial accomplishments. Provincials sometimes introduce simplicity and common sense to a style that has become too embellished, too sophisticated, too self-centered. The provincials tend to think in more concrete terms. They are often committed to the ordinary facts of life as they know them, rather than to the demands of an established style that has taken on a life of its own.

Sometimes, by learning the best that has been thought and said in the larger society while paying close attention to the facts of everyday life as they experience them, provincials can develop a fresh vision of what might be accomplished, what might be created.

The Heritage Project began with a proposal created at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress that was funded and developed by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation.

That original proposal, written by Alan Jabbour and others at the Library of Congress, still provides the conceptual framework within which students and teachers work.

Following are excerpts from that founding document:

The Montana Heritage Project creates a partnership between a consortium of Montana agencies and the Library of Congress to help Montana’s "next generation" assume responsibility for maintaining the state’s heritage.

The Project…will encourage high-school students to compare and contrast the community life of Montana in past generations with community life today. The project has cultural heritage as its subject matter and field and library research as its educational strategy.

Students will use materials in the Library of Congress, the Montana State Library, the Montana Historical Society, the libraries of the University of Montana and Montana State University, and their local libraries and museums as a window into Montana community life and culture in past generations. To compare that record with cultural life today, they will be trained to interview and document members of their own communities, including some of the same people, families, and communities whom they encountered in their historical research.

The project will ask broad questions: What has changed, and what remains the same, in the life of the various cultural communities that make up Montana? Is the environment changing? Has community life changed in significant ways? Is the occupational culture of the state changing? Are the various cultural traditions of the state in good health? What does it mean to be a Montanan? How does Montana fit into the national picture? Student teams will seek to provide at least tentative answers in the form of final products that can be shared with the communities within which the students conducted their investigation—exhibits, booklets, radio programs, and public seminars conducted by the students in the community, for example.

In the course of the project, participating students will also learn concepts relating to history, cultural anthropology, folklife studies, ethnography, literature, musicology, art—concepts to which few are exposed during their K-12 years. As a result of the required preliminary research, they will also acquire familiarity and experience with library research techniques that will benefit them in other educational arenas.


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