As a doctoral student in American Studies at the George Washington University, I am interested in how visitors to historic sites experience and process potentially painful information about American history. As the experience of Colonial Williamsburg's interpreters and visitors demonstrates, slavery remains a painful topic ["A Taste of Slavery Has Tourists Up in Arms," front page, July 7].

Recently, I served as a member of a research team conducting visitor surveys at Monticello. We asked visitors questions to help us understand how they felt about recognizing Thomas Jefferson as a slave owner. Two trends are emerging.

In general, African Americans tend to draw parallels between slavery in the past and race relations today. White visitors prefer to compartmentalize slavery, most expressing a commitment to understanding it as an "important-but-distant" part of the American past. Such a finding may help explain why President Clinton's national conversation on race elicited such high hopes and such strong disappointments.

Second, although our research team did not interview children at Monticello, we recorded the observations tour guides had made about young visitors' responses to the Mulberry Row tour. That tour takes visitors outside the mansion to the remains of slave cabins and work sites and describes the experience of slavery in detail. Children not only can handle difficult information about conflicts in American history but they ask important questions, weigh their own moral choices and make suggestions about how they might participate in positive social change. History can be an important tool for encouraging children to be more engaged in contemporary issues.

Educational programs at historic sites have the potential to encourage a more honest examination of the past and a more open discussion of present -- and future -- American identity.

DENISE D. MERINGOLO

Arlington