National History Day


THEME for 2003


Rights and Responsibilities in History


During the 2002-2003 school year, National History Day invites students to research topics related to the theme, "Rights and Responsibilities in History." The theme is broad enough in scope to encourage investigation of topics ranging from local to world history. To understand the historical importance of  their topics, students must ask questions of time and place, cause and effect change over time, and impact  and significance. They must ask not only when events happened but also why they happened and what impact they had. What factors contributed to their development? Regardless of the topic selected. students must not only present a description of it, but also draw conclusions about how their topic affected individuals, communities, nations, or the world.

As the poet john Donne wrote more than 300 years ago, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every

man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." People live their lives in a web of connections with other human beings. Within that web they have rights and responsibilities as members of families,

as participants in politics, as producers or consumers, or in any of the other myriad roles human beings assume during their lifetimes.

Historically, rights have taken many different forms. America's founders believed that individuals had certain fundamental rights, simply by virtue of  being human. In other societies, rights depended on membership in a group or class, such as the castes of Brahmin India. Throughout history, human institutions - governments, churches, corporations, and other entities - have enjoyed rights as well.

With rights come responsibilities, whether it is to exercise rights within limits or to ensure rights for others. While students may be tempted to focus on rights, the theme includes both rights and responsibilities and students should address both aspects of the theme whenever possible.

Students may explore the origins and impact of key documents related to rights. A student might write a

paper that investigates England's Bill of Rights in 1689 or the American version written a century later. Students interested in local history might create an exhibit examining the development of their state constitutions or town charters to discover the rights and responsibilities of the people and governments and how they have changed over time.

Great thinkers have devoted much time to considering rights and responsibilities. A performance might analyze the origins and impact of Mary Wollstonecraft's feminism, while a documentary could explore the relationship between the Industrial Revolution and Karl Marx's views of !he rights and obligations of workers and owners. What other thinkers have influenced rights in history?

Specific rights also could make excellent topics. A performance could probe the evolution of freedom of the press in America and the ethical obligations which that freedom requires of journalists. A documentary could analyze the origins of the right to receive a free elementary education, found in the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which implies a governmental responsibility to provide free education. How did the legal right of slaves to buy their freedom affect Latin American society?

Students may wish to research the rights and responsibilities conferred by citizenship. A paper might compare the meaning of citizenship in the ancient Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. The evolution of the income tax in the United States would make an excellent topic for an exhibit. while a documentary could explore the duty of military service in a society such as Meiji Japan (1868-1912) or 20th-century Israel.

The rights and responsibilities of family members also might interest students. An exhibit could analyze the practice of suttee, a custom formerly practiced in India in which widows were burned along with their husbands' bodies, while a paper could discuss the development of married women's property rights in 19th-century America. How have the rights and obligations of parents and children changed over time in America or in China?

Rather than focusing on individuals, students might wish to examine the experiences of different groups. A performance could analyze how economic and political changes affected the obligations and rights of lords and vassals in medieval Europe, while a documentary could explore the development of affirmative action in the United States. An exhibit might evaluate the consequences for Sri Lanka of the different rights of the Sinhalese and Tamil peoples while it was a British colony.

The denial of rights and the struggle to gain rights could provide many powerful topics. An exhibit could analyze the role of different women's organizations such as the National Woman's Party in winning female suffrage. while a documentary might explore the impact of a key individual such as Mohandas Gandhi in earning political freedom for India. What events in the American Civil Rights Movement could be dramatized in performances?

The rights and responsibilities of nations and governments also make suitable topics. How did the extraterritoriality rights of Europeans affect 19th- century China? A paper might examine how the idea of the "White Man's Burden" affected American foreign policy in the early 1900s. The changing views of the federal government's responsibility for the poor in the 20th century could make a good documentary.

Students may want to delve into topics related to religion and churches. An exhibit could investigate the relationship between the Mexican Revolution and the privileges which the Catholic Church

enjoyed in Mexico. What impact did notions of religious duty have on the Crusades? A dramatic performance could recount the conflict between Anne Hutchinson's ideas of religious freedom and government's responsibility to enforce orthodoxy in 1 7th-century Massachusetts.

Another broad area which can provide excellent topics for student projects is the economy. Compelling documentaries could focus on events such as the Homestead and Pullman Strikes of the 1890s in which workers and owners struggled over rights. A paper could look at the development of corporate rights in America. perhaps focusing on court cases such as the Charles River Bridge case of 1837 or on the conflict between corporate rights and government responsibility in the anti-monopoly struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A performance might analyze the battle for land reform in a Latin American country such as Nicaragua, which pitted the rights of peasants against the rights of wealthy landowners and corporations.

Science and technology provide another broad area of interest. The conflict between the rights and responsibilities of scientists could be illustrated by a performance on Galileo's experience with the

Roman Inquisition in 1633 or a documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer and other Manhattan

Project scientists who came to doubt the wisdom of atomic and nuclear weapons. How has technology such as the printing press and television changed our views of rights and responsibilities?

The theme is a broad one, so topics should be carefully selected and developed in ways that best use students' talents and abilities. Whether a topic is a well-known event in world history or focuses on a little-known individual from a small community, students should be careful to place their topics into historical perspective, examine the significance of their topics in history, and show development over time. Studies should include an investigation into available primary and secondary sources, analysis of the evidence, and a clear explanation of the relationship of the topic to the theme, "Rights and Responsibilities in History. " Then, students may develop papers, performances, documentaries,

and exhibits for entry into National History Day competitions.

For more information, contact:

National History Day 0119 Cecil Hall University of Maryland College Park, MD 20742 301-314-9739


National Contest: June 15-19. 2003