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Awards & Honors: 2011 National Humanities Medalist

National History Day

“It’s an amazing sight,” says National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn. “Eight thousand people in Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, marching bands playing, school banners waving, kids in matching T-shirts, and everybody’s shouting and cheering for academic excellence and history.”

Held at the end of the school year, that national competition is just a glimpse of a far larger program, encompassing more than 600,000 students and 20,000 to 30,000 teachers. Tens of thousands of volunteers—lawyers, journalists, archivists, historians, curators, educators, and others—serve as judges at the program’s local, state, and national contests. National History Day participants come from all fifty states, Washington, D.C., Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Defense Department schools overseas, and international schools in China, South Korea, and Indonesia. “Last year’s winners,” Gorn notes, “included a group from Shanghai.”

Every fall, students start research on historical topics of their own choosing within a broad theme—this year it is “revolution, reaction, reform.” Making choices about the topic and their research, which must include primary sources, “allows them to take ownership of learning; it makes learning an exciting endeavor,” says Gorn. Some students start in sixth grade and participate every year, she adds. “We had one who said, ‘history is not my favorite subject, but I love History Day.’”

Students also have to decide how to best present their findings. National History Day “started from the science-fair model, with the choice of doing a paper or an exhibit,” says Gorn. “We added documentaries, live performances, and, more recently, websites.” The variety helps students see that “history works in all kinds of fields, from Ken Burns documentaries to museums.” With the inclusion of a website option, “there was a big jump in participation, because teachers got other kids interested. And, lo and behold, they produced the websites, and they learned history, too.”

Among the winning entries for last year’s “debate and diplomacy” theme were exhibits on the Polish Solidarity movement and the Dakota Plains; documentaries on Northwest Indian fishing rights and the gay rights debate of 1977; a performance on the seizure of Confederate envoys from a British ship, the famous Trent affair; a paper on the political impact of the fatal Donora, Pennsylvania, smog of 1948; and websites on the early Peace Corps and the largest U.S. dam removal to date, now under way on Washington state’s Elwha River.

It’s all a long way from the program’s first competition in 1974, a one-day event in Cleveland attended by 129 students and organized by a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, David Van Tassel. Van Tassel and his colleagues were worried that history was being devalued, says Gorn. He wanted to “reinvigorate history teaching,” to get beyond true-false and multiple-choice approaches. With help from the Ohio Humanities Council, he quickly expanded the program throughout the state. From 1978 to 1984, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities allowed the program to become truly national. NEH also later funded some of its summer institutes and other resources for teachers.

Most students who take part in National History Day don’t become historians or history teachers, nor is that the goal. Instead, the program aims to produce thoughtful, engaged citizens in all walks of life. Participants have become doctors, attorneys, teachers—and historians and archivists, too. Chef Guy Fieri, known for his multiple Food Network television series, competed as an eighth-grader. Fieri, who was already selling soft pretzels at local fairs, won a California contest with a paper on the origins of the pretzel and its characteristic shape. As he recounts in his 2011 book on food, the prize was a chance to compete in the finals at the University of Maryland. Although he didn’t win, he wrote, flying across the country and participating at the national level is “a memory that will last forever.”

Gorn herself joined the National History Day staff in 1982 as a graduate student. “I was just looking for a job,” she says with a laugh. Witnessing the effect of the program on students and teachers inspired her to stay. “The theme in 1982–83 was ‘turning points in history,’” says Gorn. “And it was a turning point for me.”

By Esther Ferington
Esther Ferington is a writer and editor in Northern Virginia, who was recently the principal content developer for an NEH-funded Folger Shakespeare Library website on the King James Bible.