Some guy named Hitler and other tales from History Day
Last week (or was it the week before?) I spent a number of pleasant hours over several days judging exhibits for Minnesota History Day. History Day is a national contest, sort of a science fair for history, where kids grades 6-12 make exhibits, documentary films, performances, research papers, and (new this year) websites around a yearly theme, and compete at school, regional, state and national levels. History Day is a big deal here in Minnesota, thanks to the combined behemoths of the U and the MHS, and Minnesotan kids regularly place at nationals. (I never heard of History Day till I came to Minnesota. I poked around to see when Michigan started having History Day, since it seems inconceivable that the teachers at my high school wouldn’t have pushed us to do it, but I couldn’t discover the date.) Anyway, it’s a great program, pushing kids to really learn how to do research and learn how rewarding it is to be an expert on something. Apparently the MHS’s research has showed that visiting an academic library, particularly, was a transformative educational experience for the junior historians. I’m generally not super interested in K-12 education, so enjoying judging History Day so much was a transformative experience for me too!
This year’s theme was Conflict and Compromise in History, which meant lots of World War II projects. I judged Juniors Exhibits, which means three-fold posterboards, and some were excellent, and some were less so. (The judging forms have only three categories, good, excellent, and superior, so all the projects were ‘good.’)
Since History Day focuses on use of primary sources, there were lots of recent American history projects. It was terrific to hear a student exclaim over going to the library and holding the real copies of Time Magazine from the 1970s. With increased digitization of print resources, it’s becoming more exciting to be in the presence of authenticity–which is of course what museums and special collections will continue to offer. (Of course, I’m a little jaded from spending my last however-many years reading pamphlets from the 1890s about syphilis.) Here I thought it was charming.
Some projects were rather lacking in contextualization (like the project on a particular famous person from WW2 that mentioned “some guy named Hitler”) and some projects were entirely amazing (for instance, a project on the war in the Aleutians) and would stand up to anything a professional historian produces. We should be recruiting these kids for our museums and our public history graduate programs! Having a history-literate population helps everyone. History Day proves to both kids and jaded judges that it can also be fun and even exciting to be a historian.