Interpreting the Theme
Before choosing a topic, you should read NHD's Theme Narrative about ways to define and interpret "Breaking Barriers in History"—which, as NHD points out, "...requires you to view history through multiple perspectives. Compromise can sometimes prevent a conflict, but what happens when it does not? If a conflict occurs, how can compromise help to end the conflict? What happens if a failed compromise leads to an even larger conflict?"1 Examples of people and cultures dealing with "Breaking Barriers in History" can be found at local, state, national, and global levels during all periods of history.
NHD uses a theme-based approach because it helps you, the researcher, to move beyond the outdated notion that history is a set of facts and dates. Rather, it provides a lens through which you explore historical content for context, connections, and consequences.
To determine the historical importance of your topic, ask questions about time and place, cause and effect, change over time, and impact and significance. It is not enough simply to describe an event or idea; you also must explain why it was important. Without understanding the historical context, it is impossible to analyze the significance of an event. Here are two important concepts to keep in mind as you develop a topic.
Historical context: the social, political, economic, or cultural environment and/or circumstances that allowed the situation or idea to arise and occur. In other words, why did it happen?
Historical perspective: the development and long-term impact or significance of a person, action, event, or idea. In other words, how did it happen and so what?
How Old is Old?
You might be inclined to select an individual or event that was momentous in your lifetime—for example, Apple's refusal to decrypt an iPhone or the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the long-term impact of such recent situations is not yet fully known. The general rule of thumb is this: don't choose a topic less than twenty-five years [old] or until one generation has passed. Time gives historical perspective.
When selecting your topic, your first choice might be a very famous person or event that obviously relates to the conflict and compromise in history. But remember: judges appreciate when you have been creative in choosing and investigating lesser-known events and people of the past. Examples of "over-used" topics include The Beatles, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, WWII Internment Camps, and Jackie Robinson.
National History Day (2018). "Taking a Stand in History." 2018 Curriculum Theme Book. University of Maryland, College Park, p. 7.