David Van Tassel & the Origins of National History Day

On May 11, 1974, 127 students from middle and high schools in the greater Cleveland area gathered on the campus of Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Cleveland, Ohio, to compete in a contest called History Day. The idea was the brainchild of David Van Tassel, a professor of history at CWRU, “to counter the devaluation of history as a field of study.” Van Tassel had witnessed a generation of young people in the 1960s caught up in events during one of the most turbulent decades in American history, who felt that past events were irrelevant to their lives and wanted to help students recognize history's impact. He was especially disturbed by the rote style of learning used in most history classrooms and “wanted to do something to reinvigorate the teaching and learning of history.”

The country was beginning to look toward the coming bicentennial in 1976 and celebration of the country’s 200th birthday. Van Tassel and his colleagues saw the renewed interest in the nation’s history as an opportunity to motivate young people to study the past and influence the way teachers were teaching history. He wanted to use a contest format to motivate students to study the past not by memorizing names and dates, but by engaging in the art of historical inquiry. Uninterested in the Spelling Bee version of competition in which students memorize information and respond to questions, Van Tassel looked to the Science Fair model in which students ask questions, conduct research, analyze information and draw conclusions.

Van Tassel wanted teachers and students to analyze and interpret history—to draw conclusions about the ways in which historical events influenced the course of human society. He believed that asking students to relate their projects to a theme would force them to think about why their topic was important in history and why their contemporaries should learn the importance of historical perspective. The theme for that first History Day contest was Ohio and the Promise of the American Revolution.

The contest was an immediate success. The following year, student participation increased by 400%. 540 students and 58 teachers from 35 schools considered topics related to the theme, The Spirit of the American Revolution. The success caused Van Tassel to seek support from the Ohio Humanities Council to take the program statewide in 1976 when the theme was Images of America: A Bicentennial Mirror of People, Places, Ideas or Events, and involved students in eleven regions around the state. By 1977, when the theme was Turning Points in History, student participation had increased to more than 1,500.

Van Tassel was a visionary. He was not one to be satisfied with local success. He saw the power of History Day and wanted to make it available to students and teachers everywhere. By the summer of 1976, he had already had a conversation with representatives at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) about support to expand into neighboring states and hold a regional contest in 1978 involving students from Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. NEH awarded a planning grant of $17,500 which allowed Van Tassel to bring in representatives from the junior historians programs in Indiana and Kentucky to attend the contest in 1977. A year later he received $160,000, the theme was Energy: Its Impact on History, and nearly 3,000 students took part.

The growth of the program during those early years was rapid. As history professors and public historians learned about the program, they too wanted to get involved. Recognizing how quickly things were moving, Van Tassel applied to the State of Ohio to incorporate a non-profit organization to run and expand History Day and hired Lois Scharf as its first director. In 1979, the theme was Migrations in History, and like the theme, History Day was moving across the country, almost on its own. Only one year later, in 1980, the first national contest was held with 19 states participating.

Over 40 years and millions of students and teachers later, NHD continues to pursue the vision and mission established and cultivated by its founder, David Van Tassel. Van Tassel passed away in 2000, but his legacy lives on every year when hundreds of thousands of secondary school students around the globe make history come alive through research and analysis for their NHD projects. Whether in person or virtual, on-site or online, National History Day will continue to work with students to develop their understanding of history and ensure they are prepared to face the challenges of the future.

Learn more about the people who make National History Day happen.

NHD 2023 & Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas

See past annual themes.