Student Historian Jonathan Brown Meets First Lady Michelle Obama

Jonathan Brown, New-York Historical Society President and CEO Louise Mirrer, First Lady Michelle Obama (Steven E. Purcell, Photographer, LLC)

On Monday, November 19, the New-York Historical Society was honored with the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award for its Student Historian program. Student Historian Jonathan Brown, a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy in New York City, accepted the award from First Lady Michelle Obama on behalf of the New-York Historical Society! We spoke with Jonathan about his time as a Student Historian, his interest in history, and what he hopes others can learn about the city’s rich past. 

What first sparked your interest in history?
When I was about seven, I started to watch a cartoon titled “Liberty’s Kids” on ABC Family. The cartoon depicted the American Revolution and early republic through the eyes of children which made a lasting impression on my young mind. I felt connected to the characters of James, Henri, and Sarah and was able to imagine myself as their friend during the Revolutionary and early republic eras.

What were you looking to accomplish for yourself in the Student Historian program? Did you succeed in
I applied hoping to reinforce my commitment to majoring in history. I felt that if I could successfully complete such an intensive program and enjoy myself, pursing history in college would be worthwhile. Additionally, I wanted to become a more proficient student. I needed to learn how to balance both my time and commitments. I learned that no specific commitment should be given more of a preference, but that it is best to take on activities that you enjoy so that picking and choosing activities over others will not be so difficult. I was able to find balance in my schedule that allowed me to participate in the Student Historian program on Thursdays during my junior year.

With such focus in schools on reading and math proficiency, it sometimes feels like history falls by the wayside. Do you feel this program gave you skills besides a deeper knowledge of history and art?
The most important skill this program gave me was the ability want to work with other students without being forced to. Since the program, my involvement in group based activities has dramatically increased and I often find myself being one of the leaders of those groups.

Do you have a favorite object at the New-York Historical Society?
My favorite objects at New-York Historical are the paintings in the hallway in Luce near the staff staircase—Portraits of a City. If museum goers begin from the Tiffany Lamp collection, they will be able to trace New York history from the original Dutch settlement to a view of lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center. It is a great reminder of the long history and the dynamic changes that have occurred in our nearing four-hundred year old city.

What do you think can be done to get other students interested in New York’s deep and fascinating history?
The history of the City of New York should be a required class for New York City high school students. Whether public or private or parochial, students should engage in classes on their city’s unique history. Speaking from a public school perspective, we take an exam in the fifth and eighth grades that focus specifically on New York State and New York City history. Other than those grades, we all take American and Global history courses and some go on to Advanced Placement courses. However, none of these courses bear the name “New York”! As a senior, I will not have the option of taking a New York history course at my high school, but hopefully my underclassmen colleagues will be able to experience the distinctiveness of our great city in the future. Perhaps in Saturday Academy!


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