Youth vs. History—and the winner is…

Thoughts from FWHS President Chuck Hatfield

I will admit that I often don’t know where I’m going until I get there.  I am doubtful that it’s because of the creeping effects of aging, rather than the continued demands of my mind to learn.  Nevertheless, it is my challenge to recognize life’s lessons when I arrive at these unmapped destinations, and so it happened in the writing of this article.

I had planned my series of articles in Pillars to broaden our definition of history, stress the value of local and family stories, and learn from our youth.  I had only to write this last article that would somehow convince the younger generations to save our precious history for us.  Then, coincidentally, the Friends’ board was invited to a National History Day presentation and I met Laura Ball.

Laura is a high school junior from Wauwatosa, attends the University School of Milwaukee and is the winner of a gold medal in the 2009 National History Day contest.  Her winning paper, “Cholera and the Pump on Broad St.: The Life and Legacy of John Snow,” is an example of excellent scholarship and writing skill.  Besides winning a coveted prize, this paper has been widely distributed and read on the Internet from Los Angeles to London, a sign of our changing times.  I decided that she would be the deliverer of my history message.

I made an appointment with her, read her paper, browsed the National History Day website, and then planned my questions as I drove to Wauwatosa.  But talking to Laura was not what I expected.  She was not a “history geek” that hid out in the reference section of some old library as I had imagined, but a person who loves science, reading, writing, music and people.  The real Laura Ball is a bright, eclectic, reflective, mature and a very “un-geek like” young lady.  As I began plodding through my questions, I soon discovered that she was telling a more complex and truthful story.

Her formal education began in a Montessori School, but she soon transferred to St. Jude’s’ Elementary in Wauwatosa, in part to bring more discipline and focus to her education.

She liked school and was an eager learner who accepted the challenge of her 7th grade teacher to enter the National History Day competition in 2006.  She loved history, but not the history of old buildings and historic facts.  She was attracted to the wonderful stories of unique people who made a difference in history, especially those whose stories had not been well told; at least not in a way that connects with her or her friends.  She chose for her junior documentary Rhoda Lavinia Goodell who, against all the prejudice of the pre-Women’s Suffrage age, became Wisconsin’s first female lawyer.  This effort earned her 11th place at the national finals, as well as the Women’s History and Jamestown 400th Anniversary Awards. Later that year she was named as one of 16 nationwide Caroline D. Bradley Scholars by the Institute for Educational Advancement.  It was quite a year—and she was only in 7th grade!

She resumed her relationship with National History Day as a 9th grader at the University School of Milwaukee, this time in the Senior Individual Documentary category. The NHD topic for 2008 was Conflict and Compromise in History. 

Using the same framework for choosing a subject that had worked so well in 7th grade, she chose the little known but powerful story of Harriet Hemenway, whose heroic efforts against the slaughter of birds for the sake of the fashion industry marked the beginning of the Conservation Movement in America.  Laura’s documentary “Ruffled Feathers: Women and the Origins of the Conservation Movement” would take her again to the NHD finals.

“Senior competition is just amazing,” she explained to me.  “When I saw how terrific many of the presentations were, I just couldn’t be disappointed that I didn’t win a medal.  I had learned so much about researching, finding primary and secondary sources, interviewing, writing, and editing.  And I had fun.  I even have an inflatable cow that Team Wisconsin marched with at the awards ceremony!”

Back now to Laura’s National History Day victory of 2009 – a gold medal for her paper and more academic awards.   She had chosen to enter the Paper category because it focused more on history, and less on technology.  So, in 2009, she was judged not on performance, but on her skill as a writer, researcher and, importantly, an historian.

In our 2-hour conversation, Laura refused to boast about any of her accomplishments.  But when she told me about calling the John Snow Society in London, there was pride in her voice. They talked to her as to an adult, a fellow historian, eagerly providing her with special insights into Dr. Snow’s achievements. She is one of thousands of young Americans who have discovered the power of the National History program, a power given voice in their mission statement.

“The future of democracy depends on an inspired, thoughtful and informed citizenry…. National History Day teaches essential historical literacy that motivates students to secure the future of democracy.”- NHD Mission Statement.

Preserving and caring for our history is an important, even patriotic calling for old and young alike.  (But as I look around history organizations at the volunteers who have accepted that calling, most of us are somewhere between “collectibles” and “antiques”.  It isn’t that this generation with its great resources cannot “save” the history that it wants, because it is already doing so.)  However, every new generation faces fiercely competing interests that could undermine opportunities to learn from the past.  It is crucial that we value the talents, technology and perspectives of our youth, while providing ways to foster their enthusiasm for learning and a love of history.  If we don’t, our progress in preservation and historical literacy will be unsustainable and our democracy compromised.   Laura Ball introduced me to a vision of a sustainable “future” for history – youth’s amazing response to the National History Day program.

Are your children and grandchildren provided the same opportunity at their schools?
Your interest and encouragement could change the course of history.
Start today:  www.wisconsinhistory.org/teachers/historyday/

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