National History Day Receives Major Gift from Kenneth Behring

AHA Staff, February 2009

National History Day received a $1.9 million gift from philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring to “improve the teaching and learning of history at middle and high schools throughout the country.”

“We are obviously delighted and grateful,” said Cathy Gorn, National History Day executive director, in accepting the gift. “Mr. Behring’s generosity will enable us to take important new steps to open the window of history to students and teachers. We know the need and desire for history education is out there. Now we have the capacity to serve thousands more. This gift will help us demonstrate that the study of history can be both enlightening and fun.”

This year National History Day is celebrating its 30th anniversary and will explore the theme “individuals in history.” The group emphasizes the importance of research, thinking, and communication skills among students, and provides educators with resources and training to enhance classroom teaching. More than 600,000 students nationwide take part in the program.

Students choose historical projects related to each year’s theme, and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through museums, libraries, archives, oral history interviews, and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about the historical significance of their particular projects, students present their work in original papers, web sites, exhibits, performances, and documentaries.

National History Day activities culminate in a national contest—now called the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day competition—held in June every year at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland and attended by thousands of students who display, perform, or discuss history projects they have developed during the year.
In his remarks at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, where the gift was announced in early January, Behring stressed the need for young people to study and understand history. “There’s nothing more central to the education process than learning about the individuals, events, and movements that have shaped our way of life,” he said. “I hope this contribution will make it possible for students and teachers alike to gain a greater appreciation of history.”

Through a partnership with the National Museum of American History, projects by the state finalists will be presented at the museum. The partnership will also feature web and blog components for use by students, teachers, and families.

“We are proud to be a partner with National History Day,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “Our two organizations have a shared mission of furthering history education and getting young people engaged with their past.”

Among Behring’s many charitable activities is the Wheelchair Foundation, which has donated hundreds of thousands of wheelchairs to disabled people in the United States and in developing countries. He is also involved in providing water purification technology to countries where fresh water is scarce. He has made a substantial gift to the University of California at Berkeley and is a major supporter of the Smithsonian Institution with generous donations to the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History.

—Based on a press release from National History Day