Bucks County Herald

Bridget Wingert: Happy to Be Here

Amazing stories told in school



At the Bucks and Montgomery Counties National History Day competition, Lauren Miller of Central Bucks East High School won First Place for a Senior Paper with “Repatriation Compromise: The First War the United States Lost.”

This weekend, about three dozen middle school and high school students from Bucks and Montgomery counties will travel to Carlisle for the National History Day state competition.

Some of those may move on to the national competition in June at the University of Maryland.

That will not be a surprise, since in most years, some are selected for the honor. The top two entries in every category at the statee level are then invited to the National Contest.

Melissa May, coordinator of education for the Mercer Museum and National History regional coordinator, checked recent years to see the local group’s success.

“Last year we had six students go to nationals after states. None placed at nationals though,” she said. “In 2016, we had 12 students move on to nationals from states – again none placed in 2016.”

But in 2015, of nine students n the state contest, three wnet to nationals. in the top three of their category.

The theme this year was “Conflict and Compromise in World History.” It gave students an opportunity to explore with today’s tools any period in history, anywhere in the world.

Some chose American history; others went far afield – to Africa, Europe and Asia, exploring genocide, war, racial protests, tribal disputes and demonstrations for gender equality.

Students could enter exhibit displays, websites, papers and video documentaries. They prepared through the school year – some school districts have incorported National History Day projects into the curriculum.

The Bucks County Historical Society, the parent group of the Mercer Museum, began its involvement in 1996 with just a few students. In 2005, 300 students participated. When participation hit about 700, the museum limited the number of entries. The competition starts in the local school, where future historians rise to the top and move on to the regional contest.

On April 25, regional winners presented their projects for parents and guests at the museum in Doylestown. Displays included “Japanese Internment,” “The Battle of Stalingrad.” Winning websites featured, “Susan B. Anthony: A Woman for Equal Ballots,” “The Paris Peace Accords” and “Ai Wei Wei Art Verse.” The papers ranged from “The Greco-Persian War” to “The Repatriation Compromise: The First War the United States Lost.”

A student from Indian Valley Middle School chose “The Lend Lease Act” as her topic. A group of middle school boys chose a sports ethics theme, “Players vs. the President: Conflicting Ideals and Compromising Ideas.”

A group from Central Bucks high schools worked together on “The Rwandan Genocide: 100 Days of Silence,” and a CB West group focused on “Welcome Home: Pearl S. Buck’s Mission to Save the Children of Korea.”

Back in 1974, as America was planning the celebration of its 200th birthday, a college history professor worried that Americans’ interest in history was waning.

He was David Van Tassel of Case Western University in Cleveland. A native of Binghampton, N.Y., he arrived in Cleveland as a visiting professor in 1968, a time of student unrest and declining history enrollments. He had earned his undergraduate degree at Dartmouth and a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin.

Van Tassel’s dissertation on the evolution of historical societies and the historical profession in the United States was published in 1960 as “Recording America’s Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607-1884.”

“As early as the 1970s—before most others in the discipline—he recognized the need for history to break new ground to arrest further losses in lay interest,” a Case Western obituary at his death in 2000 said. “Van Tassel combined his lively imagination and winning manner with an uncloistered ability to inspire confidence, to raise funds, and to plant new institutions to carry his aims beyond the academy.”

Van Tassel taught at Case Western University in Cleveland as a visiting professor for two years before joining the permanent faculty and eventually charing the history department.

He arrived in 1968, time of student unrest and with it, declining historry enrollments. Van Tassel introduced highly successful graduate archival and museum studies and a doctoral program in social policy history which explored the development of local agencies and institutions.

In 1974, he founded National History Day in an effort to match the nterest of local science fairs at local high schools.

The first event in 1974, limited to Cleveland and some surrounding counties, gathered 129 secondary school students. In June 2000, the year Van Tassel died, the national finals drew 2,112 students from all 50 states, to College Park, Md.

“They represented 40,000 teachers and 700,000 students who had competed in local and state programs,” according to the obituary. “This effort demonstrated that high school teachers and their students could handle with sophistication the tasks of historical research and public presentation while academic judges of their efforts discovered talent in unanticipated quarters.”

The obituary added, “In Cleveland, Van Tassel will long be remembered for recognizing a need for historical approaches to the socially and economically depressed city, then known as the “Mistake on the Lake.” With few precedents upon which to draw, he enlisted local amateurs, trained them in historical research and writing, and produced a comprehensive, highly popular study of the city: ‘The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (1987, 1996) as well as a companion volume Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform (1986),’ which was designed for the academic market.”

The encyclopedia became a model for other cities, including New York. It is part of Van Tassel’s enormous legacy that is felt around the globe.

Students who make it to the national contest in June mingle with others from all over the United States and its territories.

Coordinator Jay, a former social worker and Museum Studies graduate of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, makes sure students enjoy the experience. She has been a national judge and she knows spending time in the Washington, D.C. area is valuable – and even fun.

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