Organizations We Admire

The Impetus Of Creating National History Day

Emilee White

History was never Dr. Cathy Gorn’s favorite subject.

She went to college to study biology and thought she’d end up in medical school. But classes like calculus and physics suggested Dr. Gorn wouldn’t be majoring in science after all. Instead, she pivoted to English — she always loved to read — and to satisfy an elective credit, Dr. Gorn took a history class that would go on to change her life forever.

“If somebody told me back then when I was in eighth grade that I'd eventually be doing this gig and I had a Ph.D. in history, I'd be laughing,” Dr. Gorn said. “It's the way it's taught. I equated history with this boring stuff in school and it wasn't until later in college that a great history teacher opened my eyes. That's the impetus behind creating National History Day.”

Now with a newfound love for history, Dr. Gorn continued her academic career by pursuing her Masters at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon graduation, Dr. Gorn noticed the National History Day program was looking to hire another history professional in its national office, which just so happened to be located at Case Western Reserve. 

National History Day — a bit of a misnomer as it’s not just one day a year — started in 1974 as a way to improve the way history is taught and learned in schools in the United States. The founder, David Van Tassel, was chair of the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland at the time. It was there when Van Tassel decided he wanted to invigorate the way history was taught and learned.

According to Dr. Gorn, the year 1974 had just come off a very turbulent decade of the sixties and early seventies in which a lot of young people and adults were not necessarily feeling that history was relevant to their lives, and were much more current-oriented. Van Tassel, who created the program, wanted to show young people that history was and is very relevant. He wanted to see young people learn more history, but Van Tassel recognized that in the schools — middle school and high school — it was mostly taught by boring textbooks. Van Tassel was ready to change that.

“He knew that if you offer a contest, that's a motivator for young people, but he wanted to make sure that students would learn history, by doing history, not by memorizing names and dates,” Dr. Gorn said. “So he created National History Day where kids from the greater Cleveland area would bring their exhibits, papers, and performances, and then they'd be judged. This was all geared toward the coming bicentennial in 1976 and it was a great success.”

What started off with only 127 students grew to more than half a million that participate every year. By the early 2000s, the program had gone international with students overseas taking part in National History Day and had received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2011.

The contest invites students to choose any topic they might be interested in to study historically, conduct extensive research on their topic, get primary materials from archives and museums, and conduct oral history interviews. Van Tassel created this program to get students to think of history, not as something they memorize, but something they analyze, research, and then present their findings in a creative way. These creative presentations can be done on paper as a traditional way of presenting historical information, a tabletop museum exhibit, a dramatic performance, a website, or a documentary.

National History Day’s mission to change the way history was taught and learned resonated so much that Dr. Gorn accepted the open position with the program in 1982. 

“The theme that year was turning points in history — we have a theme every year,” Dr. Gorn said. “It was a major turning point for me when I saw what this could do for kids and how it changed the way teachers taught history. I really thought I had found my cause and 41 years later, I am still doing this. I've been with the program since the fall of 1982, and became executive director in 1995.”

The 2023 National History Day National Contest will take place at the University of Maryland from June 11-15. For more information about the contest and how you can get involved, visit the website here

“Ordinary people can [create] some pretty extraordinary things,” Dr. Gorn said. “All of history teaches us that.”

Photo credit(s): Courtesy of National History Day’s Instagram, Dr. Cathy Gorn, Rob Wilkins