So, what does developing skills in history have to do with advancing the United States in the global economy? How does history hold its own in a world focused on science, technology, engineering, and math? Turns out, the skills cultivated through the study of history prove to be integral to developing the types of skills today’s business leaders are looking for in new hires.
Norm Augustine, a former chairman and CEO at Lockheed Martin, sounded the alarm a few years ago about the state of education in the United States. The nation was falling behind its global competitors. Did Mr. Augustine suggest more rigorous course-work in the sciences? In math? In engineering? No! He encouraged a renewed emphasis on history.
What does the ability to rattle of names and dates have to do with American success internationally? Nothing. But then, that’s not what history is about. The study of history, when it gets beyond the “dates and names” approach, teaches a number of skills valued by the corporate world: critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly. Augustine notes: “a candidate who demonstrates capabilities in critical thinking, creative problem-solving, and communication has a far greater chance of being employed today than his or her counterpart without those skills.” And he adds that these skills “are competencies that our public elementary and high schools can and should be developing through subjects like history.”
“Students who are exposed to more modern methods of history education—where critical thinking and research are emphasized—tend to perform better in math and science” Augustine wrote. “As a case in point, students who participate in National History Day—actually a year-long program that gets students in grades 6-12 doing historical research—consistently outperform their peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies but in science and math as well.”
The National History Day program has been around since 1982. Millions of students from all 50 states, as well as U.S. territories and Defense Department schools around the world, participate in the History Day program. Each year, National History Day identifies a theme—the theme for the coming 2016-17 school year is “Taking a Stand in History!” Students select a topic related to the theme that interests them and begin the research process.
Participating students have multiple options. If writing is their strength, they can write a historical paper. Students with a good sense of design might opt to construct a table-top exhibit. Those prone to theatre might create a performance. The documentary category is suited for those good with a camera and at telling a story. More computer-savvy students may opt for designing a website. But key components to all projects are learning to conduct research.
Students analyze historical sources and make judgement calls on which sources are reliable. They learn the value of consulting primary sources and multiple points of view. They create a thesis and find supporting evidence. They draw conclusions based on their research. They learn how to communicate their findings through various media and in the interview with judges that’s an integral part of the History Day experience. In essence, everything Mr. Augustine is looking for in a new hire in the business world is developed and cultivated in the National History Day program.
Since 2008, Fort Ticonderoga has coordinated North Country History Day for New York State. Students from six New York counties (Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, St. Lawrence, and Warren) participate at Fort Ticonderoga early each March. Those who place first and second in each category advance to represent the region at New York State History Day in Cooperstown in April. The top entries there advance to National History Day, held in College Park, Maryland, in June.
Most students who participate in History Day never advance beyond the school or regional level, but they take away valuable skills—those skills Mr. Augustine and his colleagues are looking for. Every student receives constructive feedback from the panel of judges. Judges come from as far away as Albany to participate in North Country History Day each year. Judges are current and retired educators, archivists, museum and historic site staff, and others from the local and regional community interested in working with students.
This year’s North Country students represented the region well at New York State History Day. Homeschooler Grace Sayward, from the Plattsburgh area, placed second in the Junior Historical Paper category for her paper on “Marjorie Lansing Porter” and will represent New York at National History Day next month.
Alice Cochran, Christina Lashway, and Nicholas Manfred, from Moriah Central School in Port Henry, placed third in the Senior Group Exhibit category for their exhibit “The Bracero Program.” They are designated alternates; should the first or second place entries be unable to advance to National History Day, they would move on to represent New York State.
Ben Caito and Liam Sayward, homeschoolers from the Plattsburgh area, won a special award from the New York State Historical Association for an outstanding project exploring New York History for their Senior Group Documentary “Verplank Colvin: an Exchange of Ideas.”
Fort Ticonderoga also sponsored a state-wide award at this year’s New York State History Day for an outstanding entry related to Colonial or Revolutionary history. The winner of the Fort Ticonderoga Colonial History Award was Ewan Todt-Tutchener from Ithaca High School in Ithaca, New York, for his Senior Historical Paper on “To Please the Indians: Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange on the Canadian Frontier.”
Mr. Augustine would be proud of our North Country students. He believes the American economy will thrive “because of a ready supply of workers with critical thinking, creative problem-solving, technological, and communications skills needed to fuel productivity and growth. The subject of history is an important part of that foundation!”
Director of Education