Why National History Day Matters More than Ever
Vanessa Varin, September 2013
By Vanessa Varin
In recent months we have tried to highlight events that stress the importance of history in public dialogue, and National History Day (NHD) is an event that in many ways serves as a foundation for students to begin thinking historically. National History Day is a year-long academic contest focused on historical research that is prepared and presented by 6th- to 12th-grade students and judged by professional historians. Students pick their own topic (perhaps one key to the success of the contest), collect primary research, and write a substantive research paper that is then evaluated by a panel of professional historians.
Not many 16-year-olds want to spend their off-school time sitting in a dusty archive, weeding through original railroad records. Nor do they have the inclination to track down and develop an oral history of the first generation of female law school graduates at a renowned Ivy League institution. For ambitious National History Day participants, however, this describes exactly what they love to do, and they approach their projects just like experienced researchers preparing manuscripts.
Recently, I had the opportunity to be a judge for the national contest, and I traveled to College Park, Maryland, to judge the final participants and their papers. I arrived at the University of Maryland campus and immediately encountered a flurry of nervous students and equally nervous parents, rehearsing presentations and diligently monitoring the clock. As I bobbed and weaved through the crowd of students, I occasionally recognized fellow judges-either professors from local universities, or historians I knew only by reputation-making their way through the crowd to check in. In a discipline sometimes known for being divided along professional lines, NHD is a rare event where a wide variety of history lovers and history professionals come together, bonding over a mutual passion.
While judging the papers is the core responsibility of a judge, the best part is meeting the students. The judging process is not merely about rating the students' papers, it's an opportunity for students to share their research with professional historians, defend their theses, and make connections between their research and today's world. The latter turned out to be where many of the students we interviewed came alive.
It's not just connections between the past and present that should be encouraged, however. Researching and writing a historical narrative demonstrates to them that history is, at its core, an interpretation. As one student said during their interview, her favorite part of the process was creating a history as she saw it. At a time when many feel like the value of the humanities is underappreciated, these students validate why it matters. The skills students learn during this competition equip them to analyze and form connections, think critically, and communicate and write effectively-all crucial skills in a multitude of professional environments.
But writing a research paper is not the only way to participate in National History Day. Unbeknownst to me, NHD provides a wide variety of ways for students to contribute, including history-themed exhibits, websites, documentaries, or dramatic performances. (I bumped into a student clad as Abraham Lincoln clutching a crystal ball, making me sorely disappointed I had to miss that tongue-in-cheek (?) performance.) The students were having fun, and they were having fun with history.
While National History Day is all about students, it is also a unique event for the adults. It is chance for history professionals and archivists to combine expertise, work with students on critical learning skills, and demonstrate to the greater public the value of history education. It is trained archivists who are guiding our students through the process of primary research, shepherding them through the archives and attending to their needs as they would any researcher, and this care was not lost on the students participating in NHD. Many of the students we talked to specifically mentioned the archivists and research librarians who organized tours in archive stacks and facilitated their primary research. Once the student has produced a research paper and entered the NHD contest, history professionals from around the region donate their time to judge and critique their research on the basis of clarity, originality, and convincing argument.
Yet despite these obvious accomplishments, National History Day needs our help. The event is sustained by the collective work of volunteers and the organization is always in need of history judges, both at the regional and national level. According to Deputy Director Kim Fortney, NHD organizers are on a continual quest for history professionals to get involved and empower students early in their academic life. E-mail the National History Day judges if you are interested in participating in National History Day or for information on volunteering.
A version of this article originally appeared on the AHA Today blog.
-Vanessa Varin is the AHA's assistant editor, web and social media.