Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT
Most of them arrived on Sunday, the day before their big four-day event began: More than 2,100 middle- and high-school students from nearly every state in the union, the District of Columbia and American Samoa. They were the na-tional finalists in the National History Day (NHD) contest held each year in mid-June at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The 2,100 students weren't alone. They brought with them more than 5,000 proud parents and teachers eager to see these state champions come out on top in the nationals. A Jeep Grand Cherokee with Delaware license plates arrived with "NATIONAL HISTORY DAY OR BUST!" painted on the rear window. On a side window was "ASK ME ABOUT MY NHD KIDS!"
For the last year, these students of history had honed their History Day projects into lean, mean presentations. More than 700,000 began the competition at the local level. By the time they reached the state contests, their numbers had dwindled to 40,000. Now they were down to 2,100 and facing stiff competition for prizes that included bronze, silver and gold medals for the top three slots in selected areas, as well as big-time scholarships and $5,000 monetary awards.
For the last three years this reporter has been a judge in the NHD finals, an experience that is an encouraging shot in the arm for anyone chagrined by what polls for years have shown about the weak historical awareness of America's young people. These disappointing stories report that few students can identify James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution or the century in which the Civil War was fought.
NHD students tend to know a lot of history. What's more important, they are fascinated by the subject. For them it's not dead. The past is alive with the influences it has on the present and with the many people some of them famous, most not who did extraordinary things that should be remembered.
That no doubt is what Case Western Reserve University history professor David Van Tassel had in mind when he set up the modest beginnings of what has evolved into National History Day in Cleveland a quarter-century ago. Concerned about the decline of interest in history since the 1960s, he hoped NHD would be a remedy which it has been, to a greater extent, perhaps, that Van Tassel dared foresee.
What there can be no doubt about is that the good professor would have been pleased with the enthusiasm evident everywhere during the four-day event. Students wear T-shirts boasting of the states they're from white ones for Tennessee, with an outline of the Volunteer State in color. California's are a deep blue with "History Day The California Way" on the front along with "I Love National History Day," the word love a brilliant red heart. Washington state students wore black T-shirts; New Mexico's were brilliant gold with a red sunburst symbol in the center.
The enthusiasm, too, bubbles over into the ardent trading of state buttons carried on by students, parents, teachers and others caught up in the energy of the event. Collectors wear their buttons prominently some sporting those from past contests as well as this year's. For 2003 the button to have was West Virginia's.
The Mountain State had a lone contestant, Beth Bradley from Ravenswood High School in Jackson County, and she came with the Ohio delegation. Nonetheless there was a West Virginia button and it was in great demand. When this reporter, who's home state is West Virginia, acquired one, it wasn't five minutes before an NHD parent from Vermont was offering a trade.
National History Day is funded by the Siemens Foundation, Jostens, the History Channel, Cargill and the U.S. Department of Education, among other sources. There's also the Friends of National History Day, which those interested can join (telephone: (301) 314-9739; Website: www.nationalhistoryday.org).
What gets contestants interested? …