National History Day Receives National Humanities Medal from President Obama

Posted February 14, 2012

WASHINGTON D.C. — National History Day (NHD), a year-long academic program focused on historical research for 6th to 12th grade students, was awarded the prestigious 2011 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony on Monday, February 13. Dr. Cathy Gorn, executive director of NHD, accepted the award on behalf of the NHD staff, board and honorary advisory council, and the state affiliate programs.

Michigan History Day (MHD), operated statewide by the Historical Society of Michigan, is part of the National History Day program.

Click here to see the White House ceremony.

The National Humanities medals honor achievements in history, literature, education and cultural policy. For the first time ever, a K-12 education program received the National Humanities Medal.  The citation for National History Day was for being “a program that inspires in American students a passion for history. Each year more than half a million children from across the country compete in this event, conducting research and producing websites, papers, performances, and documentaries to tell the human story.”

“It’s an honor to be recognized by the President and your peers for doing work that you love – helping students understand and appreciate history,” said Gorn. “NHD represents the most ambitious humanities learning model for middle and high school students in the United States today. I have witnessed firsthand that the study of history can change the life of a young person far beyond this program. These students achieve not only academically but are also prepared for life.”

“We are proud that the NHD program has been awarded by President Obama, and by extension recognizing the outstanding work being done right here in Michigan” said Larry J. Wagenaar, Executive Director of the Historical Society of Michigan.  “NHD Director Cathy Gorn has provided exceptional leadership making the History Day program one of the most effective educational programs available today.”

What began as a series of contests operating out of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio is today an international, year-long academic program for 6th to 12th graders focused on historical research.  NHD operates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and is expanding internationally in Europe, China, Indonesia  and South Korea, serving more than half a million children annually with its unique approach to the hands-on learning of history.

Michigan History Day began under the leadership of the Detroit Historical Society and, after few years, moved to the Historical Society of Michigan, the state’s oldest cultural institution founded in 1828.  Currently over 5,000 students compete statewide.

“This year the Historical Society of Michigan received a major grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in part to dramatically increase the number of students participating in Michigan History Day from minority and underserved communities” Wagenaar said. “We are actively engaged in growing the program and reaching thousands more students statewide.”

The impact of National History Day goes far beyond the annual contest.  A recent comprehensive study by Rockman et al found that students who participate in NHD develop a range of college and career-ready skills, and outperform their peers on state standardized tests across all subjects – including science and math.

Gorn said she is as proud of the National History Day winners as she is of the students who find a way to improve their education overall through their participation in the yearly program.  She cites two remarkable examples in the last few years:

  • Along with their teacher, three students from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois helped change history in the famous “Mississippi Burning” case.  The students selected the 1964 murders of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi as their National History Day Project, creating a documentary that presented important new evidence and helped convince the state of Mississippi to investigate, reopen the case and convict Edgar Ray Killen for the murders.
  • A special education student, whose former principal believed could not learn, created a documentary for National History Day as part of his history class, the only mainstream class he took.  His first National History Day project went to the state finals, and in his second year of participation, he was a finalist in the annual contest.  That same student was able to transition to all honors classes, with much of his progress attributed to the critical thinking and analysis skills he learned in developing National History Day projects.

“NHD works because it applies a research-based methodology, specifically engaging students in rigorous research, connecting teacher practice and instruction to student achievement, and providing students and teachers career-ready skills they can use outside the classroom,” Gorn said.

“Students have always told us how their NHD experience has changed their life, both in their academics and their careers. History not only teaches students about the stories of our past, but is vital to creating a generation of young people who can apply these lessons to the future,” said author and journalist Cokie Roberts, a member of the NHD Honorary Cabinet.

In addition to National History Day, this year’s honorees included Kwame Anthony Appiah, John Ashbery, Robert Darnton, Andrew Delbanco, Charles Rosen, Teofilo Ruiz, Ramón Saldívar and Amartya.  In 1990, the late historian Dr. David Van Tassel won the predecessor to the National Humanities Medal – the Charles Frankel Prize – for his role as founder and president of National History Day.


About National History Day

National History Day (NHD) is a year-long academic organization for elementary and secondary school students. Each year, more than half a million students, encouraged by thousands of teachers nationwide, participate in the NHD contest. Students choose historical topics related to a theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about their topics’ significance in history, students present their work in original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries. These products are entered into competitions in the spring, at local, state and national levels where they are evaluated by professional historians and educators. The program culminates in a national competition each June held at the University of Maryland at College Park. Visit Follow us on Twitter: @nationalhistory or find us on Facebook: National History Day.

About Michigan History Day (National History Day in Michigan)

Michigan History Day offers a fascinating opportunity to move social science beyond rote learning. Students perform self-directed research on an individually chosen topic. They then present their work through the allied disciplines of art, literature, music, drama, visual communications, and writing. Participants are encouraged to expand and improve their work between each state of competition. Michigan History Day and its district and state competitions are part of the National History Day (NHD) competition. State finalists go on to the national competition held in College Park, Maryland in June.

About the Historical Society of Michigan

The Historical Society of Michigan is the state’s official historical society and oldest cultural organization. It was founded in 1828 by territorial governor Lewis Cass and explorer Henry Schoolcraft. Today, the Society focuses on its five mission areas: publications, education, conferences, historic recognition programs, and support for local historical organizations. For more information about the Society, visit or call (800) 692-1828.


Historical Society of Michigan 7435 Westshire Dr., Lansing MI 48917
Email | Phone (517) 324-1828 | Fax (517) 324-4370

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