I’m sitting at work on a Saturday at the Military History Institute, when in walk three boys, probably about my son’s age. So they might be thirteen at the most, but definitely not a day older. They walk up to me and want to know about Operations Neptune and Fortitude, both of which were operations of the larger Operation Overlord, the Allied invasions by sea and air into Normandy on June 6, 1944.
These young students are looking for primary source materials about the operations, having been here earlier in the week having already secured their secondary sources.
These particular students are doing research for their projects as part of the state of Pennsylvania’s National History Day, which has been ongoing annually since 1974. It was earlier just this year that I myself was a judge at the state-level for the 2012 National History Day competitions. The theme was ‘Revolution, Reaction, and Reform in History,’ which I thought at the time was a pretty hefty theme for a grad student, let alone a middle-schooler. But I was judging some of the performance pieces, in which the students made a short play, dance routine, or other artistic piece. Many of the kids were nervous, tripped over lines they were reciting, or completely forgot them all together, but all did a great job. I remember two different groups, one white, the other black, did pieces on Nat Turner and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. Both were really very good, each capturing the anger and sadness of a young slave wanting a better life on his own terms, and how his rebellion shook the South years before the Civil War would do so again. Another group of young students did a small play on Pennsylvania coal-miner strikes, while another group of young women performed another short play as women that worked in an industrial plant manufacturing airplanes during World War II. They did an exemplary job of capturing what it was like for those young Rosie the Riveters.
One parent, Susan Moose, said of the program: “The true benefits from participating in National History Day go way past a certificate or medal. The program teaches kids the writing, analytical understanding, and reading comprehension skills that will make them a success in life, no matter what their career.”
I think it teaches them even more. While I was immensely impressed at how serious the students took their projects, and the obvious research, time, and care that they put into them, I think it also teaches students empathy and compassion. History is replete with stories of people that had once been oppressed, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families, or a group of underdogs that waged a war or campaign in order to build a better world. Most young students find history to be boring, a series of memorizing names, dates, and places that requires little analytical thinking. But once they put themselves in the shoes of those that came before them and think about why people did the things they did in a different time and place, they are able to empathize with those people, especially someone that was once young, like they are now, and had to overcome great obstacles to achieve great success.
The theme for the 2013 National History Day is ‘Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, and Events.’ The young men that are in today studying up about the landing operations of Neptune, and the deception of Fortitude, are looking at how those events helped turned the tide at Normandy and the war in Europe. I hope they won’t forget what they’ve learned, and I hope they will remember the people that helped turned the tide in order that they could live the lives they do today. Young men, not much older than they are now, that often gave up their youth and too often their lives so that they would live a life of peace. National History Day is a wonderful institution here in Pennsylvania and throughout most of the United States. I’m glad to be a supporter of it, and I hope other readers out there will be too.