The Virtual Republic

Students discover the power of citizenship when they review policy, suggest changes, and find ways to get involved. It’s all happening on a new website: The Virtual Republic.

Learn more: The Idea of America


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. There’s a concept that we’ve been talking about here at Colonial Williamsburg for a few years. It’s called the "Idea of America," and it’s a way to think about events in our history as pieces in a continuing balancing act among the values that define us.

The premise of reconciling American values and the implicit demand for active citizens is a message that has echoed widely in Williamsburg and beyond. Here today are Bill White, Vice President of Colonial Williamsburg Productions, Publications and Learning Ventures and Colleen Ziemba, Producer of Distance Learning Programs. Thank you both for being here today.

Bill White: Thank you.

Colleen Ziemba: Thank you, good morning.

Harmony: Well Bill we’ve talked to you before, but I’d like to have you remind us again about the Idea of America. How this philosophy of putting historic events into a perspective that spans sort of all time from the past right up to modern events. How that help us understand and appreciate events in history and how that’s become part of Colonial Williamsburg’s sort of guiding philosophy?

Bill: Well, first you have to accept that America at its very heart and soul is a debate; it’s a conversation that launched at the time of the Revolution about how we will govern ourselves. It’s a neverending job, and citizens are engaged in the business of that job; every generation in the business of that job. What they’re doing is debating values that are American. The problem is that those values are actually in conflict with each other. They’re actually in tension with each other. Sometimes in synergy with each other, but we’re always in the process of trying to balance them.

So for example we all believe in individual liberty and freedom, watch cry of the Revolution, but we know that we can’t all be completely free, you know. If each individual’s completely free we have anarchy and Americans don’t like anarchy. We know we have to live in common society so we temper our freedom with equality. But we don’t believe that we’re all completely equal either. What we believe is that there’s a place where you can get the most freedom and the most equality.

We debate our unity and our diversity. We believe that we’re a one American people, but we also celebrate the fact that we come from different places, we live in different places in the country, that we worship at different churches and religions, that we’re a diverse people and we think that that actually enriches us for the most part. But every immigration debate we have is about how much diversity can we actually stand; how much will it take to tear us apart.

We talk about law and ethics. We’re a nation of law. We believe in the rule of law, but we know that law is not inherently ethical. You only have to look at Jim Crow laws to figure out that the law is not necessarily ethical. We’re always pushing to make it ethical. That’s where the Civil Rights protests in the 1950s and '60s comes from. It’s the drive to make our laws more ethical and at the same time we know that our ethics need some practicality. Prohibition turned out very high ethical standards, but turned out to be a really bad practical idea. It needed the practicality of the law to make it actually work, so there’s a balance we have to get between law and ethics.

Then the last one we talk about is private wealth and common wealth. We’re consuming people. Americans have always been consumers. We believe that we should have the right to bring private wealth to ourselves, but we also understand that we have to live in common society together. So we have to give up some private wealth in order to create the community that we live in; the infrastructure that we need, the government that will help us live together, the military that helps to protect us, the religious institutions that we worship at are all things that we give up private wealth for the benefit of the community.

So we’re always balancing these values and we’re constantly in that debate about how to balance them. Every generation has to decide that for themselves and the conversations we have are long lasting. We’re talking about immigration now, but it’s not the first time we’ve talked about immigration. We talked about immigration in the early 19th century and again at the end of the 19th century and the 20th century. These are important issues and we keep coming back to them over and over again. They have a historical context. But in that conversation we’re in the process of trying to balance those values for ourselves.

So that’s what we’ve been doing with school students and with the general public is trying to get them to look at that debate historically. Let’s go back and look at an issue and see how it has unfolded over time. Now turn around and take a look at your own world. Take a look at this issue today in American society and where do you stand? Where do you see the values in play and how does that help you shape your position on these issues? Because every American citizen should be engaged with these issues.

Harmony: So the idea is that there’s not a right way or a wrong way to come down on these issues when you’re juggling or balancing these sets of American values, but that this is a conversation that evolves. We’re a nation that evolves, our values change, our beliefs grow with us. So it’s not so much that there’s a right way to be an American, but that, or that there’s a right answer, but that you should be involved in the discussion, that you should be part of the evolution.

Bill: Absolutely, and when I talk to people I think it helps people understand that while we often feel polarized, we aren’t actually. Nobody says, “I believe only in equality.” Americans don’t do that. We just don’t believe in equality. We also believe in freedom. We’re trying to figure out how to balance those things and I may think that the situation today requires more equality or I may think it deserves more freedom, but I still believe in both of those values. All Americans do. All Americans believe in the law. All Americans believe in ethics. We all believe in these values. It’s just a matter of how we, individually, are speaking today to try and balance those things. And that’s where the discussion comes. That’s where the debate is.

Harmony: I almost wish we could stop right there because you’ve said it so nicely, but we actually have a second half of today’s topic talking with producer Colleen Ziemba. You said that "Every generation must be a part of the discussion of citizenship.” And Colleen is working to bring our youngest generation to the discussion with a website called The Virtual Republic. Colleen, how does this website tailor with what Bill White has been explaining to us but sort of spin it for younger minds.

Colleen: Sure. In its simplest form the Virtual Republic is a place where students can come to learn about current policy issues and then also share their own suggestions for ways to improve the existing policy or thoughts about why the existing policy actually works.

And then we add to that challenge the idea of get involved and do something. It was initially conceived to be an extension of our curriculum called "The Idea of America," which is built on the platform of the great debate and the value tensions and in textbooks there’s a difficulty with updating the content so that it is always current. The website, The Virtual Republic, allows teachers to come and see updates to the textbook in its current form.

What we do is we update The Virtual Republic usually weekly with a week in review slide show which focuses on photo journalism because as we know the current generation is very visually focused so that’s all photo journalistic images of world news and you can see that on most news websites today.

We also include a video called The Nutshell History video and the idea behind that is to combine historical context of a current event with an animation which is very popular today because of the likes of John Green. So kids can click on that and they will see an animation video play out that will explain to them in simple terms something that’s really complex or convoluted or has a long history that they might not understand.

We also in the current event when they actually select a current event to read, it's written in plain speak or as I like to say “teen speak” as a way for them to understand what’s happening and why it’s important to them and they can just click on the tab that says, “You and the Issue” and that will say why it’s important that they should read this and know about this.

Harmony: So give me an example of one of the issues that they might be getting familiar with.

Colleen: Well, we basically tried to look at current news stories and select the ones that they need to know about. So for instance, at the moment we are looking at steroids and the role of Congress in possibly regulating sports and the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which for kids that’s very important for them.

We’re also looking at the NSA in surveillance and how it relates to national security and what we try to take is this approach of, “What if we were looking at it from the whistle blower perspective? How do you become a whistle blower in your own life and why do you make that decision to stand up or not stand up when something is wrong?” And so if we can try to tap into that aspect of a student’s consciousness then we’re able to maybe show them that this is important and this shapes them as a citizen.Because citizenship is not about just you. It’s about you as a part of an active society.

So that’s the approach that we have taken with it. And then if they feel passionately about this, they can go to the policy discussion section and make a comment about the way that the current policy is or the way it could be improved. And also the thing about the Virtual Republic that I might be most excited about is the civic engagement aspect.

There’s a third step to this. It’s not just learning about an issue and then discussing a topic and figuring out a policy, but it’s actually acting on those beliefs and those ideas and taking a stand. So we’ve included a section where kids can go and find issues and causes that are important to them that directly relate to a current event that they’ve read and actually start to do something, whether its write to their Congresswoman or Congressman or write the President or the Vice President or organize some type of action within their community. And then they can come and tell us about it and show us by posting a picture or a video or an article or even a voice recording about why, what they did in their community and why it was important.

Harmony: I think this is such a good idea because I remember social studies being an exercise with you and the book, but here it is something where by being a part of it, by having your own opinion listened to, you begin to feel the power of citizenship and it's, you know, it’s almost subversive; you can change things. You can overthrow a government, you can choose a leader, you can start a movement, so it kind of puts the fun into it. It kind of puts the energy back into it. When does this website launch? When can kids and teachers start using it?

Colleen: The Virtual Republic is up at the moment and currently there are a couple of changes being made to it and we have used the feedback from our teachers and students that we collected over the past year to inform some of the layout of the home page and the ways that the site works. But you can go to today and start using it and engaging in the discussion.

Harmony: And now is this just for any individual or teachers only in the classroom? Who can use this website?

Bill: Well it’s directed at teachers, teachers to engage their students and so if you know a high school or middle school teacher let them know that the resource is there and that it’s available. If you are a high school or middle school teacher, let us know what you think and how it works and how we can help you in the classroom. Because there’s nothing more important than engaging that new generation of American citizens with their responsibilities to be engaged in this great debate.

Harmony: And that website is We encourage everyone to visit it today. Give it a try. Let us know what you think. Thanks so much for being here.

Colleen: Thank you for having us.