Program founded at CWRU honored with National Humanities Medal

From the National Endowment for the Humanities

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama awarded the 2011 National Humanities Medals to eight individuals and one educational program for outstanding achievements in history, literature, education, philosophy and musicology—including one that got its start right here at Case Western Reserve University.

National History Day was awarded a National Humanities Medal for its ability to “inspire in American students a passion for history.” Now a school-year-long program that involves more than 600,000 students and 20,000 to 30,000 teachers per year, National History Day actually got its start at Case Western Reserve in 1974 as a one-day event with 129 Cleveland-area students.

History Professor David Van Tassel, who passed away in 2000, started the event because he worried that history was being devalued in the classroom and because he saw an opportunity to make history education about much more than multiple-choice tests.

By 1976, the program had expanded throughout Ohio, and by 1979, three more states were involved and the program had been incorporated into a nonprofit organization under the name National History Day Inc. A national contest started in 1980, with participants from 15 more states taking part; by 1995, students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia competed.

To take part in National History Day, students choose historical topics related to a theme—this year’s is “revolution, reaction, reform”—and conduct extensive research on their topic through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their work, students present original papers, websites, exhibits, performances or documentaries in local and state competitions. Professional historians and educators evaluate the projects, and the winners go on to the Kenneth E. Behring National Contest each June at University of Maryland. About 8,000 people from across the country take part each year.

More than 5 million students have taken part in the event since its inception, making it a program that has “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities”—hallmarks of the medal winners, according to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“The National Humanities Medal is a wonderful honor,” said Alan J. Rocke, Henry Eldridge Bourne Professor of History and acting chair of the Department of History. “CWRU’s history department is proud to have been the creator and incubator of such a transformative program.”

National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn accepted the award from President Obama on behalf of the staff, board and honorary advisory council.

Others medals this year were given to poet John Ashbery; economist and philosopher Amartya Sen; historians Robert Darnton and Teofilo Ruiz; philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah; music scholar Charles Rosen; and literary scholars Andrew Delbanco and Ramón Saldívar.

Since 1996, when the first medal was awarded, 133 individuals and 10 organizations have been honored.

For more information on National History Day, visit